Wednesday, September 14, 2011

College Degrees: Overrated or Vital?

Weeks like this make me ask myself just why in the world I ever decided to go back to school for my master's. Among other things, my time in grad school has led to some difficult career decisions, including my husband's having to turn down good job opportunities back in California, and has of course also required me to pay a small fortune for the privilege of feeling stressed and frustrated much of the time.

After not doing as well as I'd have liked on a quiz for my legal class and also struggling to gain a solid grasp of XML for my e-publishing course, I've been feeling pretty defeated, to say the least. But even in the midst my most frustrating moments, I have to admit that I can still see the ultimate good in this experience, knowing that my graduate degree will hopefully be a valuable investment in my future, just as my undergraduate degree has been.

That's why I was recently shocked to see a news report stating that in the current economy, many high school graduates and some experts no longer see the value of an undergraduate education. Watching this, it was all I could do to keep from screaming at the screen as my blood boiled inside.

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I may have mentioned before that I grew up in a blue collar family with a mother who had a high school education and a father who never graduated from high school. As you can imagine, they have struggled financially throughout their lives, and in my mind, college always stood out as my ticket to living the American Dream. Without a question, it was and continues to be an experience worth so much more than a mere piece of paper, since in every way possible, my college education changed my life for the better.

Along with exposing me to countless possible career paths and new ideas, it put me in contact with professionals and mentors who have given me the tools, connections and inspiration I need to succeed. It was through college that I gained the valuable experience of being the editor of a campus newspaper and through that experience that I gained the opportunity to intern in Washington, DC, opening the door to the job opportunities that followed.

I know people my age who don’t have college degrees, and the difference between where they are financially and in their careers is often very different from where my college-educated friends are. Yes, I know a degree is no guarantee of future employment and that competition is fierce in this job market even for those with advanced degrees. But if it’s so tough even for these people to get jobs, how much harder must it be for those without any type of college degree?

My alma mater, Cal State Northridge. Image Source: citnab 
Of course, I know there are scenarios in which it's possible to be successful in certain fields that don’t require a typical degree, but instead have certifications and training programs of their own. I also know that there are definitely examples of talented individuals who have been enormously successful without the aid of a college degree. However, I still believe that in the majority of cases, especially for those who come from the same background as I do, earning a college degree is the best opportunity for a better future.

Yes, university tuition prices are shockingly on the rise. Yes, it’s expensive, and yes, I’m no fan of going into debt. But if going to college is truly someone's goal, I believe there are still ways to make it happen, whether by choosing a state school or community college, taking just a couple classes at a time, or working for a few years to save money, as I've done in order to go back to school for my master’s degree and wedding coordination certificate. 

My sister attends a community college where financial aid is still available, and I myself went through undergrad at a state school with the help of financial aid and scholarships. Other classmates worked their way through, while also balancing families and other obligations. As one of my instructors used to say, if it’s your dream, your vision, you'll do everything in your power to make it work. In order to be successful, you must ultimately invest in yourself. 

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Finally, it's not only up to the students, or at least it shouldn't be. It's easy to be a wealthy (and undoubtedly college-educated) “expert” on the news, or a budget-slashing policymaker here in DC, sitting in a comfortable private office and telling others that their degrees have no value or that federal student aid deserves to be reduced. But it’s not so easy to live the life that results from not having an education, which is something I’m sure the majority of these big shots have never experienced and would never wish upon their own children.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree, and what has your own experience been like?


  1. As someone who holds an undergraduate and law degree, I certainly know that I would not be where I am today without higher education. It's interesting, though - my best friend, my brother and my cousin all have college degrees, and they have struggled for years to find career-type jobs. My brother is a salesman, and my cousin and friend are servers at restaurants. These jobs don't require college degrees, but in this market, these jobs are the only ones available to them for now. Also, many of the clients at our firm are owners of construction companies that didn't even finish high school, and they earn more than I could probably ever hope to working for someone else.

    So, I think it depends. Generally speaking, I believe that college degrees do make it easier to find stable and higher paying jobs, but this is not always the case. The economy has a huge influence on the job market, but advising people not to go to college seems downright foolish to me.

  2. I actually never went to University or College after high school. I made the decision, school wasn't for me. I took online courses to pursue my career choice. I have had lots of great jobs and now working on a new career, with my other part time job. I believe it really depends on the student at the time...if they are determined or not to proceed with schooling.

  3. I'm with you on the XML frustration. Just posted on my blog about it. This class has been infuriating in so many ways, but I know in the end it's going to help up. No matter what those reports on television say, degrees are worth every penny. In the contacts you make, the experiences you have, the things you learn in and out of the classroom. The economy and job needs are changing, and so too should education, but I don't think that means it should be eliminated. Chin up, you're not alone in your struggles this semester. We're more than half way done, still a lot left to do, but much farther than a year ago.

  4. I thought they were saying with this economy, an undergrad degree doesn't get you really anywhere, but a grad degree does? As in, go all the way or go home?

    I can certainly see it from that perspective, because my little sister graduated undergrad 2 years ago, it took her a year to find a job, and then she was laid off after 5 months. Most of her friends from college also don't have jobs yet. She's been considering going back to school, because so many of the jobs she wants ask for either more experience or a grad degree.

    I really do see the value of a college education though, whatever level it may be. College teaches you how to really learn, and draw your own conclusions, way more so than high school ever did, and that's a valuable thing to have not only in a work setting, but also just in life.

  5. I am still paying for and will continue to be paying for my college education for many years to come thanks to student loans. But I do believe it was worth every penny just for the friends/experiences I had alone.

    As far as helping me career wise, for my current job, not really. In fact my brother who never graduated college makes twice what I do simply b/c of the industry he is in which I find frustrating.

    It's sad that nowadays an undergrad degree doesn't guarantee a good job yet the price to get the degree is outrageous. It makes me angry. Even if I wanted to go to grad school I couldn't afford it and honestly right now I doubt it would increase my salary or opportunities all that much.

  6. I am in such a bubble here - I'm expat, a masters degree holder, and I belong to a certain skill/income level. But I met my friends and got into this path because of my undergraduate education. I did have doubts about my graduate degree (MBA) because I graduated at the worst time in economic history and wasn't sure if the time spent was a good investment. But I did have the most amazing personal experience and built up a global network I never would have imagined. So it is hard to measure/expense of a masters degree. But only time will tell! I still wouldn't give up my undergraduate degree experience for anything but there are definitely paths available for those that don't have undergrad degrees either.

    Chic 'n Cheap Living

  7. This really depends on your field. If you do something creative, sometimes it is more of a waste and financial burden to go to school or finish it when it doesn't guarantee to make you a better artist/designer/creator and doesn't guarantee you a job.
    I also know of some people who haven't gone to law school but still passed the BAR and are lawyers.
    It's just what you want. There is no right or wrong, but I think the rise of price is the only thing that everyone can agree is the wrong thing about it. I'm halfway to $100K in debt with no degree because I can't qualify for a loan to finish it. Do I want to go back now after leaving? Not really.
    I, personally, think that the debt-for-education swap is ridiculous and that the statistics you are seeing that make your blood boil are true. There is no guarantee to a job, whether you have a degree or not.
    You know, the reason in the 90's people went to college changed from "To get a job where I can help people" to "To make more money than non-degree-holders."
    It's been found...

  8. I actually went to college for two years and then did not finish, I waited 6 years before completeing my BHA and I have NO regrets at all. I started to realize that I needed to finish because I was being passed over for jobs even though I was qualified but I did not have the degree..once I earned my degree I have been promoted twice and now working towards finishing my masters. I really do believe that having an education helps you to move forward in your career. Now do I think I am smarter than people who do not have a degree..absolutely NOT. I know that unfortunately its whats on paper that makes you look more enticing than others even though someone without a degree may be just as qualified if not more.

  9. Oh a pandora's box! I might have to blog about this myself (linking to you, of course)

    So my two cents (as I not only have graduate degree and am currently pursing PhD, but my PhD is in Educational Admin and Leadership AND I work for a flagship R1 University)

    Schools give out degrees like candy now. You can pay just about anyone anything to get a piece of paper with letters behind your name. This saturates the market, big time. It means that more and more people have (maybe not earned) master's degrees making it harder for someone not as credentialed (AA, BS) to compete in the market. It also means that people are getting degrees for positions that don't need a middle school fake graduation.

    BUT. This is what I always remind my students (I am an associate director for two graduate business programs at a state school): The education they are getting now is not only inexpensive but extremely valuable for their future. You don't walk out of college into the role of your dreams, your work your @ss off to get there but when you're there - you'll be ready.

    SO you can do this lady!

  10. I can see what Morgan is saying above - in this're competing for jobs against people who once held very good, high powered jobs because they were laid off and therefore, having a masters will put you a cut above the rest, and/or on an even playing field with them..but it sounds like that's not really what this report may have been saying?

    In my opinion, obviously...I would never ever have passed on the opportunity to go to college just based on the experience, connections, and life lessons I learned alone. However, I think that a LOT of people stray in their careers from what their undergraduate degree was in - and people change career paths many times after college...therefore, I think it's extremely important to GET a degree, but the specific concentration that degree is in, very often has little to do with what you end up doing in life.

  11. It clearly depends on what industry you're interested in, but in my experience, a college degree is 100% worth it. I wouldn't have my job without a college degree. My husband's little brother realized college wasn't for him and didn't finish. He's still trying to figure out what he wants to do, but so far hasn't found a well-paying job. Unfortunately with the economy, even college grads have trouble finding employment but hopefully that will change. When I graduated from college, it only took me a couple of months to land a job, and at the time I thought that was so long! I feel bad for the current grads who are having so much trouble.

    I have no regrets in getting my BA and then my MFA (which was totally not necessary in terms of my career, but completely worth it in terms of my writing aspirations.)

    Good luck with school!

  12. i believe in a college education. there's just something about the experience, growing up, and learning that you can't get anywhere else. there may be people who are successful with out one, but i'm a firm believer in having one.

  13. Being the first in your family you are doing an amazing job. As the first in my family I felt I really had no one to turn to for advice or answers. I went to a state college for my Bach in Arts...where I majored in English and minored in Journalism. But I feel like I could and should have learned more and been more involved. It can be tough, esp when you have so many other things going on as well.

    You are doing an amazing job and I have to really say that I admire you and just adore you! You are always there writing notes and saying hello on the blogs, facebook, twitter, and I hope to some day meet up and have lunch together because you are just a great person.

    I think about taking more classes all the time, but then I think of the work, and the time you have to put into it, studying, reading, taking notes, taking tests...thats why I admire you for going back and getting your grad degree. Congrats Heather!!

    I might just take a few photography classes or something...hmmm!!

  14. trust me, i know how you feel. i've been working on my bachelors for several years now (i took a hiatus which is why i'm 25 and still not done) and i know how once i finish school i'm going to have to get a job and then start right back up with grad school. it's ridiculous that a bachelor's isn't good enough anymore. i'm sorry you're stressed though. grad school is never easy. you can DO IT though.

  15. i think there is a lot of value in an undergrad degree and these days it seems as though even a masters is necessary. i will say i still don't really know what i want to do in terms of career, but even if you don't use your degree necessarily, it's a great thing to have.

  16. Where there's a will, there's a way. And while I have had the luxury of having my parents assistance through college, grad school and Law school (while still taking a lot of financial aid), i admired those students around me who put themselves through schooling, b/c I know how hard it is to do it with assistance, i can't imagine without. But i have seen it first hand, it can be done.

  17. I absolutely agree. I don't think I could have gotten to where I am today without my undergraduate degree. The college experience itself, helped me develop as a person and made me realize that being on my own was tougher than I thought. If anything, it helped me to grow up.

  18. Really interesting post. Thank you for sharing! Even though an education is expensive, I think it is a good investment.

  19. Ohhhhh, this topic. I have thought so much about this topic for the longest time now.

    I'm in graduate school. I began as a grad in the English Department, and I am now in Speech Communication for public relations. I am a strong believer in education. However, I do not believe that everyone needs a degree in order to be educated -- it depends on the career/job that you want. It's a total grey area. There are some cases where a degree is totally overrated. Look at some fashion designers and PR executives who don't have a college degree. There are also some cases where a degree is vital -- doctors, lawyers, etc.

    I could go on forever. I'm stopping now before I leave a comment that is 239420432402 words long.
    Twitter: @GlamKitten88

  20. I agree it is a good investment. At my company although a grad degree is not necessary, they won't even look at you unless you have a bachelor's degree.

    I am so glad I went back to college to get my grad degree. I think they are more useful in corporate settings, but I also think it is important to get some experience under your belt either while you are in a grad program or before you go to grad school. I think experience is also very important and if you have too many degrees and not enough experience you will have issues getting a job also. Employeers want a good balance of degrees and experience.

  21. You've got some really valid points. And love your writing style. I'm following. Hope you'll follow back :D xx

  22. Unfortunately it seems to the the new american dream that you PAY if you want to strive farther in life. It's sad but I look around and say why didn't I sit my ass at home and get everything given to me for free rather than get myself through medical school. We get burned for working hard and wanting more for ourselves.


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