Sometimes, when people learn that I’m a university president, they tell me that college is irrelevant for success. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t graduate from college, they inform me. Neither did Ellen DeGeneres. Neither did John Lennon.
Other people tell me how much our society needs more roofers and electricians: “Do you know how much I had to pay an electrician last week?”
And, of course, yet others inform me (mistakenly, as it happens) how much more plumbers earn than philosophy graduates.
Now, as high school students are touring campuses, filling out applications and financial aid forms and thinking about what to do next fall, many families are having conversations about the value of college. Is college worth the cost? Would it be better to start working right away? Would it make more sense to come back to school in a few years?
Of course, for some young people, taking a year or two off between high school and college is a good decision. But for others, the delay turns into a lifetime. And, in our current economy, a college degree remains hugely valuable. In my annual address to campus last fall, I borrowed an acronym from the military, VUCA: We live in an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. To flourish in this VUCA world, people need a variety of high-level skills.
National data make clear that communities benefit tremendously from an educated populace. People with higher-paying jobs provide more support for the community at large, use fewer social services, and are more apt to support philanthropic organizations. College graduates vote at a higher rate; they participate more in community organizations and cultural events. An educated population helps to attract desirable businesses to the region.
On the community indicators website for Spokane County, Patrick Jones, director of Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis, shows us that in Spokane County only 18.7 percent of the population aged 25 or older has a bachelor’s degree. That percentage is lower than for much of the state and for the United States as a whole.
Of course, most high school students aren’t thinking about the huge impact and significance of the choices facing them. I certainly wasn’t at that age. However, the decision to attend college is one of the most momentous choices young people can make, for themselves and their families as well as for their communities.
University graduates earn significantly more over a lifetime than do people with only a high school diploma. College graduates are more professionally mobile, more able to move upward on a career trajectory; data show that their overall mental and physical health is better than that of people with only a high school diploma. College graduates are able to thrive more effectively despite shifts in the economy and their lifetime savings are significantly higher than those of people without a college degree.
So, as we speak with the young people we know, all of us need to stress the vital importance of going to college. Whether we’re teachers, family members, friends, civic leaders, librarians, or employers, we need to encourage students to tour campuses and check out university websites. We need to help students explore opportunities for scholarships and financial aid.
True, Rachael Ray and Richard Branson didn’t graduate from college. But for the vast majority of us, college is life-changing. We need to help young people make the right choices.
Their whole lives are at stake.
Mary Cullinan is the president of Eastern Washington University.
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