The current debate about the questionable value of a college degree has been trumped by some recent figures, making the argument for the benefits of higher education stronger than ever.
In January, the unemployment rate for employees who hold a bachelor's degree or higher sank to 2.8 percent, its lowest level since September of 2008. (The rate for the overall population stands at 5.7 percent.) In recent months, the unemployment gap between having a college degree and having no college experience has been as much as 4 percentage points.
What's more, there is an indication that there are not enough degree holders to go around, which will lead to high demand for college graduates in the not-so-distant future.
Young people planning for economic and career stability (along with their parents) will also want to know that earning power rises precipitously for those who hold a college degree. College graduates typically make nearly twice that of those with a high school diploma and that wage gap is growing. Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington show that Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That is up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent a decade earlier and 64 percent in the early 1980s. When we consider student loans and debt there are some critical factors that must be considered. How much debt can a student and family afford over undergraduate and possibly graduate studies? What is the earning potential of the earned college degree after graduate and for the next ten years? For example, a student who graduates with an engineering or business degree may be able to assume greater loans and debt than a student who graduates with a social work or teaching degree. All these factors must be considered. In addition, it is incumbent on universities, government, and other partners to come up with innovative solutions on how we help students and families make a college degree affordable and accessible. In addition, we must think of creative ways in which students can "pay down" their debt through using their degrees to for public and community service.
And there are still more convincing reasons to have a college education.
- While learning specific skills like accounting, finance, biology or journalism are beneficial, the added advantages of taking a philosophy course, getting credit for community service, learning a language, playing sports and/or participating in a theater program are invaluable. It's in those situations that recent high school graduates grow and become aware of the world at large. They learn from people of different backgrounds and cultures who impart varied ways of thinking, new methods of assessing situations and solving problems. By learning a language, they'll realize the culture of another country. In athletics, they'll travel and play on a team with the diversity of its members. There are tremendous benefits to the theater, from public speaking to knowledge of history through drama. At our school, Niagara University, students work in a local soup kitchen and volunteer in a number of community activities. It's there they learn to have compassion for those who live in challenging circumstances. They also benefit from an integrated experience or hybrid of liberal arts and professional education. Our students develop the ability to think critically, engage in complex problem solving, and effectively communicate orally and in writing, the gifts of the liberal arts tradition. Such an approach, benefits the students in not simply seeking answers but more importantly learning how to think about seeking answers.
- Never underestimate the value of networking. Colleges and universities are great places to start. The friends one makes in college and the people met through classes and internships form the basis of a network of people that are with an individual throughout his or her career. Universities have learned to formalize these networks so alumni have programs like career networking available to them well after graduation.
- College students learn time management, how to work in teams and how to practice social skills. They have proven that they can commit to something and see it through, a major selling point for potential employers. They live together, work together and face life's challenges together.
- Technology - The need for education will rise as the world becomes more technologically complex, and colleges and universities are on the cutting edge of implementing the last apps and devices. In the near future, college and continuing education will be a prerequisite for just about any career. Even auto mechanics, dental assistants and machinists will be using robotics and software that will require knowledge of technology.
For those who are capable and willing to advance to higher education, there can be no argument that in today's day and age having a college degree is better than entering the workforce unarmed with all the necessary tools. Yes, we still need plumbers, electricians and other skilled laborers, but today's young people are entering a complex world where few will have the benefit of a job that pays a competitive salary without a college degree or without the commitment to continuing lifelong education. And, everyone will benefit from the gift that education brings, in their personal and professional lives. Society will also benefit when we have educated citizens who contribute toward economic and social development.