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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023

Formal Higher Ed: On its Way Out?

It is true. There are people with little or no college exposure who have become billionaires. But it’s also true that these are the unicorns in a society that still relies on formal degrees to measure a slew of formally and informally desired qualities. A simple reality check reveals that, even with two new billionaires a day, we only have a little over 2,000 of them in the world, making them 0.000002 percent of the global population. The number of millionaires seems a bit more promising: In America there are about 11.8 million millionaires, which is about 3 percent of the population. This means that the 97-plus percent of us who will not become millionaires should consider the path toward as comfortable, healthy and solid a life as possible.  We have generally come to accept that college degrees represent intellectual or professional skills and increased comprehension of processes, leading to better problem-solving qualities. On a less formal note, we have also become aware that college degrees often warrant greater ethical sensitivity and creative thinking, including the ability to reinvent oneself in changing times. Whether we question the validity and cost of many four-year and graduate college programs or not, it remains a fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that a majority of people are financially better off as their level of college accomplishment increases. Their average median weekly earnings increase, and the unemployment rate decreases.  But there are more advantages to a college education. In 2012, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a press release that stated that heads of households with higher levels of education had lower rates of obesity in their household, smoked less, had higher life expectancy rates and had fewer uninsured children. The relationship makes sense: higher education usually leads to better jobs, resulting in higher earnings, thus enabling resources for good health. So, while it is definitely admirable to engage in short and widely available fast-paced free courses online, we should not underestimate the value of maintaining formal and informal interactions in a college environment. It is this collective spirit of wanting to get ahead in life and learning to discover underlying opportunities where others only see problems, that becomes the gem of a college education. This “byproduct” of being exposed to the college environment is often overlooked or downplayed. I have seen many of my former students creating long-term bonds, either through furthering their educational path, starting a business venture together or even getting married! And later, the chances of these college grads’ children attending college is greater.  Still, higher education is not cheap. It has a price tag that is oftentimes considered abhorrent, especially when considering that so many college graduates are struggling to find jobs after graduating, and then have to face immense student loan debts. The most important advice here seems to be earning that degree. A 2018 article by Andrew Kreighbaum confirms that there is a clear link between degree completion and loan repayment. You will be far more capable to pay off a $50,000 loan with a degree than a $10,000 loan without one. The choice of your college major is another hugely important aspect. Engineering, health care, computer science, and business degrees, varying from management to finance, seem to yield most job and income security. But in the midst of all these promising stories, you should always consider your own passions. The world already has too many highly paid medical doctors who would have rather been musicians and engineers who would have rather been social entrepreneurs, but who simply succumbed to pressures or chose what they considered the most lucrative option without thinking of their own preferences. US News reports that degrees in engineering (petroleum, nuclear, chemical, computer, electrical, aerospace, systems, mathematics and mechanical) easily yield beginning salaries of $65,619 to $97,689. CBS News lists a number of similar degrees in the initial income range of $78,400 and $92,300, including, in increasing salary order, physics, electrical and electronic engineering, law, architecture, design and applied art, business management and administration, industrial engineering and management science, sociology, visual art, and computer science. When it comes to degrees in business, specifically, it seems that accounting, entrepreneurship, marketing, statistics, and international business are among the most popular ones.  On a summarizing note, getting a formal college education may not be as dinosaurian as we are made to believe. Yes, college changes, and the majors that matter will also transform as our world does. But the desire of human beings to gather for a collective, constructive experience toward betterment is still very much alive. There is little more exciting than having a group of intelligent people from a widely diverse set of backgrounds in one space – real or virtual – sharing insights and enhancing each other’s levels of awareness. That is something we should not trivialize.  Joan Marques is dean of the School of Business at Woodbury University in Burbank. 

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