Formal higher education: Is it on its way out?

Despite the attraction of some alternative forms of education, there are still many advantages to a college education
By: | November 12, 2019

Joan Marques is dean of the School of Business at Woodbury University in Burbank, California.

It’s true that there are people with little or no college exposure that have become billionaires. But it’s also true that these are the unicorns in a global human society that still relies very much on formal degrees to measure a slew of formally and informally desired qualities.

A simple reality check reveals that, even with two new billionaires a day, we only have a little over 2,000 of them in the world, making them 0.000002 percent of the global population. The number of millionaires seems a bit more promising: according to Google, there are 42 million people, or 0.8 percent of the world’s population, with a net worth in excess of $1 million.

In America, specifically, there are about 11.8 million millionaires, which is about 3% of the population. This means that the 97-plus percent of us (99-plus percent on a global scale), who will not become millionaires, should consider the path toward as comfortable, healthy, and solid a life as possible.

We have generally come to accept that college degrees represent intellectual and/or professional skills and increased comprehension of processes, leading to better problem-solving qualities. On a less formal note, we have also become aware that college degrees often warrant greater ethical sensitivity and creative thinking, including the ability to reinvent oneself in changing times.

Higher ed = good health

Whether we question the validity and cost of many four-year and graduate college programs or not, it remains a fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that a majority of people are financially better off as their level of college accomplishment increases. Their average median weekly earnings increase, and the unemployment rate decreases.

But there are more advantages to a college education. In 2012, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a press release that confirmed the interdependency between higher levels of education and health. The report stated that heads of households with higher levels of education had lower rates of obesity in their household, smoked less, had higher life expectancy rates, and had fewer uninsured children. The relationship makes sense: higher education usually leads to better jobs, resulting in higher earnings, thus enabling resources for good health.

So, while it is definitely admirable to engage in short and widely available fast-paced free courses online, we should not underestimate the value of maintaining formal and informal interactions in a college environment where the common goal is to achieve upward mobility. It is this collective spirit of wanting to get ahead in life and learning to discover underlying opportunities where others only see problems, that becomes the gem of a college education.

This “byproduct” of being exposed to the college environment is often overlooked or downplayed. But what holds true is that in college you make friends, who are oftentimes kindred spirits: just like you, they are there to learn and develop constructive relationships. I have seen many of my former students creating long-term bonds, either through furthering their educational path, starting a business venture together or even getting married. And later, the chances of these college grads’ children attending college is greater than in the case of people who don’t consider formal higher education.

It is the spirit of discovering underlying opportunities where others only see problems, that becomes the gem of a college education.

Still, higher education is not cheap. Even if you live in a country where you don’t have to pay tuition or purchase books, it requires time, scheduling, and mental sacrifice that many don’t feel willing or able to make.

In the US, higher education has a price tag that is oftentimes considered abhorrent, especially when considering that so many youthful college graduates are struggling to find jobs right after graduating, and then have to face immense student loan debts that they have to pay off. The most important advice here seems to be earning that degree.

A 2018 article by Andrew Kreighbaum confirms that there is a clear link between degree completion and loan repayment. Students will be far more capable to pay off a $50,000 loan with a degree, than a $10,000 loan without one.

Choosing a path

The choice of a college major is another hugely important aspect. It is always wise for students to peruse the internet when deciding the direction for their college experience. Engineering, healthcare, computer science, and business degrees, varying from management to finance, seem to yield most job and income security. While various sites offer a wide range of options, there are some recurring topics that can guide prospective students in the right direction. But in the midst of all these promising stories, they should always consider their own passions.

The world already has too many highly paid medical doctors who would have rather been musicians, and engineers who would have rather been social entrepreneurs, but who simply succumbed to emotional pressures at a time when they were still vulnerable, or chose what they considered the most lucrative option, without thinking of their own personal preferences.

US News reports that degrees in engineering (petroleum, nuclear, chemical, computer, electrical, aerospace, systems, mathematics and mechanical) easily yield beginning salaries of $65,619 to $97,689.

CBS News lists a number of similar degrees in the initial income range of $78,400 and $92,300, including, in increasing salary order, physics, electrical and electronic engineering, law, architecture, design and applied art, business management and administration, industrial engineering and management science, sociology, visual art, and computer science. When it comes to degrees in business, specifically, it seems that accounting, entrepreneurship, marketing, statistics, and international business are amongst the most popular ones.

On a summarizing note, a college education may not be as dinosaurian as we are made to believe. Yes, college changes and the majors that matter will also transform as our world does. But the desire of human beings to gather for a collective, constructive experience toward betterment is still very much alive. There is little more exciting than having a group of intelligent people from a widely diverse set of backgrounds in one space – real or virtual – sharing insights and enhancing each other’s levels of awareness. That is something we should not trivialize.

Joan Marques is dean of the School of Business at Woodbury University in Burbank, California.