“College” Means Many Things
It is generally recognized that a college degree today is roughly equivalent to a high school diploma a century ago. Post-secondary education is essential to assure a life of upward mobility, especially in light of the changing characteristics of America’s workforce in the 21st Century. Flexibility is the operant word in the job market, and every participant must be prepared to change jobs – even career paths – numerous times in the course of a working lifetime.
If high school is a time to cram seemingly useless facts into the memory bank, then college, in all its configurations, is a time for developing real skills and learning how to learn. Today, most cell phones carry much more information than the greatest libraries on earth. The trick is to know what to ask and what to do with the answers. This ability to synthesize endless facts into patterns that can become knowledge is one that matures after the high school years for most people. It is during that post-secondary educational moment that much of life’s skillset is refined for the long haul.
Given the importance of the four years after high school as a seedbed for future harvest, it is critical to fill that time productively. While the emphasis in this essay is upon traditional college or university enrollment, there are many alternative avenues available for the journey to competency in something. (And it is competency, and finding a career interest resistant to takeover by a robot, that will determine long-term success in life.) Community college, junior college, two-year college followed by a transfer to a bachelor’s degree, the military services, traditional four-year university degree options: these and other avenues offer clear paths to adult competency, which is the real objective of a college experience.
A motivated student in a community college can have a vastly more productive learning experience than a less enthusiastic student in a more prestigious institution. Successful individuals emerge from every type of post-secondary experience, so it would be unwise to diminish anyone’s credentials before knowing what that person has done with what was available. In very little time after the conclusion of the college experience, whatever its dimensions, few will remember a person’s pedigree; yet everyone will be able to see clearly the level of competency that has resulted. The highest possible composite GPA is the single indicator of effort paid and competency developed.
The opportunity to attend a four-year undergraduate degree program is a great privilege and certainly at the top of the heap of post-secondary educational options. The stronger the college or university, the greater the probability of high level employment thereafter. There are exceptions, but that is the rule. Stronger initial employment is associated with higher starting salaries. Higher starting salaries lead to bigger bonuses and raises, even when the raise is at the same percentage as that of a lower priced employee. The lower salaried employee never catches up and, in fact, loses ground with each raise.
The logistics and finances associated with attending college differ greatly from person to person, and the burden on most families is considerable. In cases where money is the central impediment, weighing the costs of a degree by pricing each credit hour individually is one place to start. If an undergraduate degree requires fulfillment of 130 semester hours, for example, the cost per credit at a community college could be one-tenth the cost at a prestigious private college. To save resources, the first two years worth of credits could be taken at a community college, after which a transfer could be made to a bigger name school. Students with impressive GPAs from community colleges or branch campuses can transfer “up” after two years with little impediment. SAT/ACT scores are often not required at this stage, and admissions decision are based entirely on success in coursework.
The eventual degree will come from the second school, and no one will be the wiser!
We are seeing increasing number of students planning to major in a specifically career-oriented field: STEM, business, communications, etc. In today’s rapidly changing job market, we believe this to be wise. There is still time to pursue music or psychology courses that are of interest while preparing for a career in a specific field.
However the bill is paid, data clearly show the positive impact of a college education in terms of lifetime earnings. College graduates earn more than high school graduates starting at their first post-college jobs, and the gap keeps widening. College graduates who do obtain a professional job right after college do better than purely high school graduates, but never catch up financially with their peers who got right into a first job. Spending time in the campus career planning office beginning in the sophomore year is important. Internships when well executed yield post-college job offers. Campus job fairs bring employers right to college seniors.
There are also many, non-monetary benefits to the college experience, and they continue to pay dividends throughout one’s life, in key areas like self-esteem, self-knowledge, the ability to adapt, enhanced social position in the community, and job promotion. Once achieved, the degree never stops giving back.
Carter P. Reese Informed Educational Solutions
This is the fifth in a series of blogs written for parents of younger students, junior high age or so, who are thinking ahead about college admissions. We firmly believe that planning ahead can yield enormous benefits, and reduce anxiety about the transition from high school to college.