What is the value of a college education?

March 13, 2014

By: YaLe Lim

“What is the value of a college education?” was the big question Brandon Busteed sought to answer at his Positive Links Speaker Series session on February 24th, 2014. Statistics show that a college education does lead to a lifetime of higher earnings—but what about greater engagement at work and a higher quality of life? Does it lead to these? Sadly, this is not the case. Research from Gallup shows that college graduates are the least engaged at work compared to non-graduates or post-graduates.[1]

In Gallup’s research, well-being is measured across 5 domains: Purpose, Social, Financial, Physical, and Community.[2] The most important domain for measuring career well-being would be Purpose, which is gauged by survey participants’ level of agreement to questions such as “I like what I do each day,” or “I have a chance to do what I’m best at everyday.” A greater sense of purpose at work translates to increased engagement. The research is reasonable and fair, and should portray the accurate level of career well-being amongst employees. So why, then, are the results so dismal? We seek to answer this question by answering others – what is a valuable college education, and how does one go about creating it?

A college education is more than a golden ticket to higher wages; it is a time of exploration. During their four years, students are given the freedom and resources to look into different areas of interest, to learn about the world and about themselves. Personally, I feel that a college education is valuable if it fulfills these criteria:

a) Opens a student’s mind to possibilities
b) Confers the required knowledge and skills to navigate the “real” world, and
c) Develops character and self-awareness

This will produce well-meaning, mindful individuals who will set out to realize their full potential and contribute to the betterment of society.

This leads us to the second, and perhaps more important question – how do we create a valuable college education? I believe that there are 3 components to achieving one.

1. Syllabus

The school should offer an array of diverse courses to students, and help them step out of their comfort zones and explore other disciplines. Many U.S. schools achieve this by enforcing distribution requirements, and I have seen many instances in which this mandate has succeeded in opening minds to other fields. For example, I know an Economics major who decided to complete a dual major in Environmental Studies after taking an Environment class. A separate case would be my personal experience – I major in Business, but I’ve come to learn so much about Anthropology after taking an introductory course in the field. A valuable college education is one that is well rounded, and trains all dimensions of a young, learning mind.

2. Community

I cannot emphasize too much the importance of a caring community. Peers provide the much-needed support and encouragement to help one through the long days and late nights of college – their companionship adds immense value and meaning to a college education.

Educators, on the other hand, impart knowledge and play a huge role in shaping our thoughts and actions. The greatest educators are those who allow students to grow and learn at their own pace, while providing encouragement and advice along the way. But such educators are hard to come by, and perhaps this is the most pressing area schools need to look into to improve the quality of a college education.

3. Self

To make a college education worthwhile, a student should step out of his comfort zone and attempt to learn as much as possible in these four short years. This is easier said than done, and unfortunately, this mindset is only prevalent in some, but not all college students.

There is only so much the state and school can do by improving the curriculum and fostering a supportive community… we have to recognize that the onus primarily lies with students and their goals for after college. Ultimately, a college education is what one makes of it.

[1] College-Educated Americans Less Engaged in Jobs: http://www.gallup.com/poll/163538/college-educated-americans-less-engaged-jobs.aspx

[2] Gallup-Healthways Well-Being 5:  http://www.healthways.com/solution/default.aspx?id=1125