What’s your degree worth?

Sep 062006
Authors: Daniel GibsonReinemer

Like many college students, I took courses that prepared me for a challenging career: Calculus, organic chemistry, physics and genetics, among others.

While making lattes at Starbucks several months after graduating, I had plenty of time to reflect on the value of a college education.

Starbucks wasn’t the only option I had after graduation, but it was the one I chose when I couldn’t find an ideal job after several months of searching. And I wasn’t the only person I knew who graduated from a quality state school to start working a job that did not require a degree.

My peers and I discovered that our expectations of employment as college graduates were not met in the job market we entered. To get desired jobs, we had to be more than simply another member of the most educated generation in history.

By many measures, there has never been a better time to be a college student. American college students enjoy unprecedented access to higher education and information, and our schools produce some of the most outstanding graduates ever seen.

At the same time, the average college graduate appears less capable than previous cohorts.

A Washington Post article last December described a recent study involving nearly 20,000 Americans that found significant declines in the ability of college graduates to demonstrate proficiency in reading comprehension over the past decade. The assessment measured basic ability to extract and compute information. These graduates weren’t incapable of providing esoteric interpretations of dense prose – it was processing information on labels that gave them trouble.

Part of the decline may be attributed to the increase in enrollment in colleges. As a greater proportion of the population receives a bachelor’s degree, the average performance may slip as more students graduate from less rigorous institutions.

There are literally millions of college-bound students who are not prepared for the academic rigors of the university. According to an August 2006 ACT press release, only 21 percent of the more than 1.2 million test takers received scores in English, mathematics, reading and science that indicated they were prepared for college-level material.

In some ways, we ought to be delighted that so many Americans are graduating from college. For many families, this represents a dream come true. Yet, we ought to be concerned about the quality of the education our students receive.

As the academic ability of the average college graduate declines and the number of graduates continues to increase, the value of a college degree should be expected to change as well. A bachelor’s degree will not hold the significance for our generation that it did for our parents’ generation. While the expected lifetime earnings of college graduates will continue to exceed those with only a high school diploma, graduates should not rely on their degree to guarantee quality employment.

Students today are fortunate not to face the barriers to higher education that previous generation encountered, but are unfortunate to face blistering competition from hordes of highly motivated graduates. If I have any advice to give, it is this: the real value of higher education depends entirely on what you are willing to make of it.

The fact that we have arrived at college says more about the availability of higher education than our desire and ability to make the best use of it. The true test of our education will not be graduating, but what we achieve during and after our four years in college.

And if you wind up at Starbucks? You’ll have better health care than many of your fellow graduates.

Daniel Gibson-Reinemer is a fishery and wildlife biology graduate student. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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