Monday, January 30, 2012

What's in a Degree?

I've written a lot about the grieving process of "life after college," lusting over a daily routine that once encompassed studying, lectures and research. Despite multiple postings on this topic, I've never examined the value of a college degree. Saturday, the Washington Post and Bloomberg jointly published a column examining the purpose of a four-year degree and asking the question, is the intent of college professional development or personal growth?

Studies have shown that on average, college graduates earn a least a million dollars more in their lifetime. And despite protest and even recent government intents to make education more affordable, the average tuition in 2010 was $17,464. After four years, students emerge with a bill of nearly $70,000. My dad has often wondered if investing tuition money into the stock market and relying on internships or apprenticeships for career training would end up paying higher dividends in the end. And if it does, then why college?

This raises an interesting question on education: Should education provide an implicit fiscal ROI or is the value found in personal and intellectual improvement? (And if the answer is fiscal, should students call on an alma mater for a reimbursement if a career falls flat?)

I'd like to think my own college experience was a hybrid. With support from my advisor, I was able to tackle three degrees in four years - Spanish, public relations and international studies. I've successfully applied my public relations degree, but my Spanish and international studies courses have yet to yield a direct professional application. 

Perhaps one day I'll find a position that's my perfect "trifecta," but even without a current business application, I wouldn't discount the experiences I gained through through these majors. My semester abroad is still a treasured experience and helped to mold my independence, global awareness, political views and my appreciation of art and history. I don't think I need to defend the value for learning any language, but mastering grammar of a foreign language really tuned up my native one.

But then, yet again, there's the financial question: what if I'd passed up college all together, moved to another country, interned and worked my way through those four years. Would I have the same career opportunities today? Would I be further along? 

Although it's impossible to truly measure the value of petty college experiences, I found my college years to be valuable in exploring and forming career ambitions as well as learning about who I was. Outside of the term papers and exams, I learned a lot from social experiences and involvement in a variety of teams and clubs. I'm not sure I'd have as strong an understanding on who I am today had I not endured those activities.

If one day they develop a method for predicting which direction yields better financial outcomes, even if it's contrary to the college path, I don't know if I would be willing to sacrifice that period of personal growth. Maybe I'll feel differently when I'm retiring at age 70 (and wish to cash in on those precious moments), but for now, I wouldn't trade it - no matter the ROI.

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