The pursuit of a degree provides opportunities for exposure to technologies and skills acquisition, making the degree holder more marketable, all other factors being equal

The Modern Benefits of a College Education—2 Important Considerations

The Old Well at UNC-CH. The Benefits of A College Education
The Old Well at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo by Dan Sears.

# 69 on my 99 Life Tips–A List is: A college education is a useful context for exposure to knowledge you may not be familiar with. You may just discover your cup of tea.

It’s important to remember many successful persons never completed college. Not that they weren’t intelligent. Foregoing college didn’t prevent them from furthering their knowledge, skills, or education. They gained these from non-traditional methods and paid no tuition to do so.

My college story

Full Disclaimer: I didn’t complete a degree. The University of my choice accepted me as a student. It was the only school I applied to, and I received a half-ride scholarship. At 17, going to my favorite University felt like I’d achieved my only life goal. I was excited to attend. But I was ill prepared to regard college as the means to a greater end. I arrived filled with questions about life. But I couldn’t get the answers in the classroom. They weren’t even asking the same questions. So, I left after 2 years.

My lack of a bachelor’s degree only bothers me when I contemplate a normal life. Thankfully, this is rare. It is a glaring omission on my resume. But I haven’t been resume dependent, so that’s never been an issue. Despite the lack of a degree, I’m well read. I’ve always been curious, with an insatiable appetite to learn new things. These traits factored in to my decision to leave college. The rigid structure left me cold, impatient with the pace of the process. I was curious and hot to know everything—now—prerequisites be damned! 

I owe what education I have to my continuing curiosity and acquisitiveness. My education isn’t the formal kind, but then my living isn’t the normal kind.

But I encourage and urge my college-age kids to get a degree (one of whom just did—with honors, I might add). I stress college as a means to some end they will need to choose for themselves. I hope they will see college as a useful stepping stone on the path of life. My rationale is mostly for the reasons I touch on in this brief piece. So I suppose I’m one of those do as I say, not as I did, parents regarding a college degree.

Success stories without degrees are exceptional today

Non-degreed success stories represent the exception in modern times. Especially so in a knowledge based economy, more and more dependent on novel technologies, and those trained to use them. The pursuit of a degree provides opportunities for exposure to technologies and skills acquisition, making the degree holder more marketable, all other factors being equal.

Even mediocre students should go to college. Especially if they remain unsure of their skill set, talents, or career interests. A college degree today is what a high school diploma was in the early 80s when I graduated from high school.

It is an entry-level requirement for a satisfying job. Yes, the value of the degree has decreased in inverse proportion to its necessity and ubiquity. Yes, many undergrads with degrees today have potential adjusted earnings no greater than their high school graduate counterparts of 40 years ago, as discussed in this Forbes article.

The factors affecting the value of a degree from one generation to the next are beyond this advice and opinion piece. But, if you’re interested in further reading, the aforementioned and linked Forbes article is a good place to start. 

Regardless of generational valuations, exposure to knowledge is valuable in its own right. And college is a fantastic means of exposure to varied knowledge if nothing else.

Degree holders earn significantly more

But… setting aside the generalized devaluation of a degree comparing successive generations, the potential earnings of today’s bachelor’s degree holders compared to only high school diploma wage earners is stark. This article from Northeastern University published a year ago shows the scale of expected earnings. This salary advantage for degree holders adds up to serious money over a career.

2 important considerations for the undecided

Setting aside salary considerations, the value in a college education is two-fold:

1- Earning a degree keeps doors from closing.

A degree is not a passport to open all doors. Depending on the degree field and the industry, a degree won’t automatically guarantee a job or career. It is easier for companies to find at least nominally talented workers from the larger pool of degree holders, and even to pay them less because of the glut. But, if you have a degree and the labor market requires a degree, at least you haven’t locked the door to your options. Companies can buy more talented labor at a cheaper rate than ever. This makes it easy for companies to bar entry to those with no degree. 

2- Going to college keeps your options open and provides exposure to ideas, interests, and perspectives you may not bump into otherwise.

This 2nd part of the college benefit equation should never end. No matter what you do about college or career, be a lifelong learner. For many, college is the introduction to subject material they’d see nowhere else. 

Expose your trip wire

Most 1st through 12th graders don’t get a lot of opportunity to study neurophysiology. I suspect high school science labs rarely map genomes. Even advanced STEM students may not study the calculus of wing design, or aeronautical engineering for a spacecraft capable of lift off and re-entry. College can introduce these specialized fields of study and the career paths available. It can uncover a latent interest or undiscovered aptitude.

So that exposure may be the trip wire for your entire future. College may be the place where you discover what floats your particular boat. If the opportunity is available for you, avail yourself of it. Do so as inexpensively as possible. It may be a useful means to uncovering your talents and purpose. 

Though “professional students” exist, for most, college isn’t the end. In at least the ways discussed, a college education is valuable as a means towards future benefits. As long as you can afford the cost, and there are some excellent guidelines to follow to determine those ratios (this is the best one I’ve found), a degree will be cheaper to buy now, than the expense you’ll incur by not having one.

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