True Life: I Needed College, and Not Just For My Degree

Alison Beth Waldman
June 17, 2011

The word on the street these days is that college is losing its worth.  "Why drop thousands upon thousands of dollars for tuition in an economy that is far less likely to find you a job that will pay you enough to make up for it?", people are saying. 

In the scraping for jobs in this sad economy, a college degree--in all its glory--is losing prestige.  It can’t promise what it used to, and that’s throwing a lot of us off. We grew up being told that doing well in school and going to college would be the key to success. 

Now the entire idea of higher education is being questioned.  Suggestions have emerged to skip the higher education experience altogether and get into the job market ASAP to save yourself the debt and frustration that often comes with a degree. 

It is totally understandable that we’re focused on the economic crisis.  It’s a really, really big problem, and college tuitions are reflecting that.  Some re-evaluation is absolutely necessary and depending on your financial situation, other options have to be considered.  Even those of us who loved our time at college are frustrated with how hard we worked and how little it has, so far, paid us back. Literally.

"If all we talk about … is the economic pay off of education, that ends up effecting finally what we teach and how we teach it. It ends up effecting the way we define what it means to be educated."

But in focusing only on the economic payoff of college we’re missing something here.  Something big.  Something that is that, dare I say, even more valuable than a high paying career.

That’s the elegant point made by UCLA professor Mike Rose in his recent NPR commentary, "Value of College Extends Beyond Paycheck." Rose brings us back to the big picture—the purpose of education, what it means to be educated, and how that notion may be changing in a world obsessed with monetary gain.  He points out that the non-economic value of a higher education experience is that it expands beyond gaining a degree that will lead to a good job. His argument is a refreshing reminder to look at the broader issue and re-evaluate how we treat higher education as financial belts tighten.

I realized this is an argument that has been missing in discussions of the value of college these days.  In fact, it gave me a big slap in the face for not thinking of it myself, in spite of all my pro-college nerdiness.  I too had been so caught up in the economic woes of the conversation and my own challenges that I had forgotten to take a step back and remember what I loved about college.  And that most of those reasons had nothing to do with working towards a career. 

College made me a better person. My liberal arts college education encouraged me to dabble in different fields and schools of thought before settling into my major.  So, this argument goes hand-in-hand with the one that has been going on for years about the value of a liberal arts approach in higher education.

I knew Rose couldn’t be the first one to take the stance of valuable non-economic factors of higher education.  I wanted to see what others had to say about it, so I Googled, “why is a college degree important?” hoping for some other expert advice. My first page of results was this:


(Can't see it?  Search for yourself)

Do you notice a pattern?  This whole first page tells us that the only reason to get a degree is to make more money.  That made me angry.  Where are those other scholars and professors and big-time advocates for higher education?  Those who believe there’s more to a degree than what translates into dollars?  With everyone’s heads stuck in the money muck, the argument for college beyond a good paycheck is a lonely one.

“There’s a social benefit [of education] for sure—learning  to think together, learning how to attack problems together, learning how to disagree, being exposed to other points of view … there’s multiple reasons that have played in and out for our justifications  for schooling.”

Why school?

Rose talks about a “civil purpose of education” that existed in the Jeffersonian era—a belief that you needed to be educated in order to function in a society. Back then, they didn’t get degrees so they could get hired.  They read books and had arguments so they could just be in an intelligent way.  Things have obviously changed a lot since then.  But I think our forefathers were on the right track.

When I was in college, I got emotionally invested in my studies. I was studying things like ethics, gender identity and communication, and listening.  I walked out of class with tears in my eyes on more than one occasion. It was pretty amazing. If you're thinking, wow, this girl is a complete nerd!, you’re right.  But my point is that the chance to go to college and take classes like that stirred up my senses and made me realize that there is so much to learn.  It humbled me in the best way possible.  It ultimately made me want to write, and here I am.  Yes, I got a degree, and I know I deserved it.  But that's definitely not all I got.

Nothing can change the value of what happens when we get an education.  I believe what I gained in my four years of college are skills, perspectives, and lessons that I would be much more unsuccessful person without.  It gave me the ability to think about the world with an open and informed mind, the ability to engage in conversation, and the desire to feed my curiosity and explore new ideas.

So, what good does that do me?  I can have intelligent conversations with people of all ages.  I know where to look if I want to learn more about something.  I can listen in ways that make conversations productive.  I can stand my ground. I can be adventurous.  I can be ambitious, respectful, curious, and independent.  I can make myself who I want to be.  To me, that’s what a successful life is about

Of course, getting that degree at the end wasn’t half bad either. But we need to remember that a college degree represents so much about a person—what they went through to get it, and how they’ve come out more intelligent, more resourceful, and more mature than their freshman-selves.  

That is what education is for, isn’t it?  Being more prepared for what’s next? What we learn in our educational journey helps us function in life before, after, and during the nine-to-five grind, and that is what we need to remember most when jobs are sparse.  In fact, the life skills that have come about through my education are probably the most valuable things I have going for me these days.

The Baby and the Bathwater

We’re experiencing a crisis of value in this country. Especially with things on edge already, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we’re having a hard time figuring out what the “baby” is. We view our most “imminent threat” as the economy and we’re getting tunnel-vision.  In the frantic, desperate attempts to solve our problems we tend to forget about the big picture – the foundations or our intellectual selves that we truly need to focus on in order to pull ourselves out of this mess. 

So what really is the purpose of education?  In a perfect world, it is to learn how to live well.  That usually translates into getting hired and being able to flex your brain muscles.  But clearly it’s not working out like that for many Americans these days. 

So, I think we should take a step back and take an old school look at, well, school.  We need to remember that no matter one’s ambition or the higher education experience available to them--technical, vocational, liberal arts, private, public, two-year, four-year--that there is always more to learn.  Do we really want 18-year olds thrown into the job market to fend for themselves in low-paying jobs?  And miss the opportunity to learn more about the world they are working for?  I know I don't.  Young people need that time to grow and learn, and so does the well-being of our country.

Alison Beth Waldman is Editorial Assistant with SparkAction.