Reflections on The Value of a College Education

Recently, one of our juniors asked me, “Do you think the value of a college degree is diminishing? Tuition is rising rapidly, and many college grads seem to have trouble finding jobs.” His question gave me pause.

Each day I invite students into conversation about how important it is to give attention to existential (college as part of a pattern of lifelong learning, etc.), spiritual, and pragmatic dimensions of college planning. All are worthy of consideration when choosing a college. And yet, I wondered, how fully had I discussed with these same students my own beliefs about the “value” of a college education?  As I see it, college counseling discussions with students should unfailingly include a foray into what they value — for one cannot make sound decisions about college on the basis of pragmatic concerns alone.

I’d like to share my answer with those of you who, like me, “sell” the value of a college education each and every day.

Dear Ryan,

Thanks for your good question!  The operative word in your question is “value.”  What do we value? What should we value? Why does what we value vary from person to person? To what extent does or should your faith impact what you value? And, in turn, what makes a college degree valuable? With these questions in mind, I share with you two primary reasons why I believe a college degree offers value:

  1. The pursuit of an education in an institution of higher learning will facilitate your process of “becoming.”

What is this “process of becoming?”

  • You will learn about who you are and whose you are– your identity — in profound and new ways in college. During the college years, your brain will continue to develop in such a way as to move you quietly (and often unnoticeably) from adolescence to adulthood. And as an (emerging) adult of faith, you will have the opportunity to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” as never before. Sacrifice and “taking up your cross” will take on new meaning as you consider the needs of those you are called to protect through your life’s work.
  • You will have a more complete understanding of the consequences of your decisions while grappling with the uncertainty of life’s circumstances directed by our Lord. You will learn that you cannot change circumstances, even by deciding differently, and you will learn to faithfully respond while attempting to make the best decision possible.
  • Within a college setting, you will encounter amazing, highly intelligent people who are incredibly different from you, and will be surprised at how much they can teach you.
  • You will begin to see and understand intangibles (things like altruism, justice, honor, courage, and evil) like never before, and you will make decisions about your life’s work in response to a newly developed vision, wisdom, and understanding. Your faith will be profoundly impacted by your developing vision of God’s call on your life.
  1. During your time in college you will be given ample opportunity to learn the skills/knowledge needed to do a job well.

How does a college teach knowledge acquisition and skills needed to “do” a job well?

  • While in college, you will engage in focused study which allows your knowledge level in your area of interest (or major) to increase exponentially.
  • If you pursue a degree in a professional area of study (e.g. education, engineering, nursing), you will be taught both theory and skills; the theory you learn will inform the way you think and will directly impact your skills application. You will become someone who does much more than simply follow directions.
  • If you pursue a degree in the liberal arts, you will engage in sustained study that provides opportunity for you to think, reflect, analyze, synthesize, problem solve, learn communication skills, read, and read some more. This type of “guided” thinking and learning will spill over into the way you work and interact with others for the rest of your life.
  • No matter if you choose the liberal arts or a professional degree, you will learn that to do a job well, you must be willing to commit to lifelong learning. The types of jobs that are available today may not be even in the picture 20 years from now. In other words, you will emerge from college with a fuller, deeper understanding of the importance of remaining teachable and engaged in our ever-changing world. Choosing to be “salt and light” in the world requires that you continue to engage and remain faithfully present in visible ways that include a willingness to learn.
    • For example, when I pursued a school counseling degree in the 90’s, there was little to nothing in my training regarding the use of technology (e.g. RenWeb, Naviance). Transcripts were typed, copied, and mailed. I didn’t know what it meant to “upload” and I certainly would not have believed that with a push of a button I could send your transcript to a college across the nation and they’d have it within seconds.
    • I did not learn about developing, maintaining, or sending transcripts while in college, nor did I receive technical training in all that the world of electronics has created for these types of tasks. What I did learn was how vital it was for me to stay relevant and aware of best practices in any number of areas, and this has allowed me to provide care for others and to complete the tasks to which I am called.

A college degree has value (despite the difficulty some grads encounter as they look for a job) because during the degree-seeking years you will have the opportunity to “become” and to learn skills and acquire knowledge. A time of sustained study will teach you the vastness of God’s creation, and you will begin to understand your role within the community of believers who, together, labor for good in this world. A college education is a valuable investment that can provide both tangible and intangible, life-long dividends.

I hope you find my answer helpful, and I look forward to continuing the conversation with you over the next year and a half.

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