Personal Development: How important is college?

The role of a college education has changed over the years. To get an idea of how people view the importance of college I asked a number of bloggers: 

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How important is a college education? (4039)

While independent learning and personal growth through books, seminars, and networking can significantly bring you closer to your professional career goal, a college education is important for the following reasons.

The exposure to a wide variety of subjects expands your understanding of the world. As an effect, it will help you communicate with individuals from other professional fields down the road, while understanding the interrelationships their work may have on yours.

The college learning experience also includes how to perform research, write effective papers, deliver presentations, work with other individuals in group projects, and how to accept challenging and sometimes mundane activities with integrity.

Mario Vellandi from Melodies in Marketing (rss)

A lot of value from college comes from learning to persevere through difficulties.  I think it is awful that some colleges are required to give tests orally for people who might get confused by reading the questions themselves.  While I sympathize with people who have reading disabilities, etc. a diploma should show people that you know how to work through the things you find hard.

I get this one a lot given that I teach at a university.  It’s very difficult to give a general answer, because it really does depend on what one is getting a college education for and how they go about getting it.  The most valuable component of a college education is that it gives students a chance to reevaluate themselves outside of both the historical family context, which has a tendency to rely heavily on tradition, and the business context, which all too often relies solely upon the bottom line of money.

A proper college education teaches students how to live an enjoyable life rather than just preparing them to enter the workforce.  College is one of the few places where ideas and perspectives are pursued for their own intrinsic value, and people who have never had the opportunity to play with ideas and perspectives this way miss a critical part of a happiness.

That’s not to say that you can’t learn to do that outside of academia, but you find people who have spent their lives doing it inside of academia and thus give the best place to truly play with ideas and perspectives.  So, on the one hand, I think that almost every individual should have at least some liberal education, in the classic sense, but on the other, most people that attend college miss that, anyways.

If you’re not there for that experience, a college education is only as important as the degree to which it bears on your ability to get a job in the career you want, which means for most people it’s not that important.  Practical skills can be learned far quicker outside of academia, which lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to practical skills and provides “distractions” (i.e. general education requirements and such), so if I were choosing between going to college to gain skills and learning them on my own, I would probably go the latter route.  But a lot of young students entering college have no real idea what they want to do and they don’t have self-teaching skills, so it’s a good place for them to learn what they want to do.

Charlie Gilkey from Productive Flourishing (rss)

Learning specific “trade style” skills can e done a lot quicker outside of college.  However, developing the the foundation to easily acquire diverse skills in the future is where college really gives people an edge.  Of course it depends on how you approach your education.  Some people go to college to basically learn a trade and this mindset significantly reduces the benefits they get from the experience.

A college education will mean the world if you are trying to work for other people and climb the ladder in a company. If you climb long enough, you’ll become a manager, maybe make six figures, or earn whatever carrot they are dangling in front of your nose.

On the other hand, what if you could somehow devise a way to earn even more money? If you sat down and thought really hard, could you think of something that you could sell over and over (whether a product or service) and make even more money in less time? If so, education is only worth the things you learned in school, and your degree means little or nothing. In this world, you may be the B student who hires all the A students to work for you.

Jason from World Fitness Network (rss)

Sometimes college can be a good way to quickly gain the diverse life experience necessary to understand the world.

A college education can help, but it’s not the only thing that can.  In some careers, a college degree is necessary just to get in the door.  However, you can and will learn much more in life than you can ever learn in school.  If you can demonstrate your knowledge or life education some other way on your resume or in person, you can probably get away without it.

If you learn well in the school environment, then it’s important and valuable.  What I learned in college I use all the time in my work, but I’m a writer by trade.  I know plenty of people who learn by doing, and for them college was not/is not that important.  College isn’t for everyone.

Anne from Writers Cabal Blog (rss)

I think some places are requiring college degrees for jobs where they shouldn’t be required, but they do this because getting a degree has become so easy that it means very little.  This causes a downward spiral where employers expect degrees, so colleges try to accommodate people who normally wouldn’t have gone to college, which reduces the value of the experience, which reduces the value of the degree, etc.

I think that for many of the professions, having a college education is essential. For example, would you really want someone who has not studied civil engineering to be in charge of building bridges? Or have a doctor that didn’t have an MD? There are aspects of many professions that are not taught outside of the college experience.

I do believe that a college education, if used properly, sets the tone and gives you the skills for a life-long learning pattern. And life-long learning is essential for success.

As a side note, what I see most often in my current position is that the people fresh out of university with degrees in computer science can’t program their way out of a bucket. Once they have a few years of experience, they are usually equal to the people who have the same amount of experience, regardless of the college degree. One of the best programmers I know has a degree in science education, but his quest for new knowledge keeps him on top of the game.

LJ from simpleproductivityblog (rss)

When it comes to programmers, I’ve found that people who didn’t study computer science in college often become very valuable because they have a perspective that pure CS people don’t.  For example, I found that my experiences conducting orchestras was extremely useful in working with teams of developers.

A college degree provides a base set of knowledge commonly discussed and experienced by other people with college degrees. Depending on what field you are pursuing, the ability to have a shared knowledge may or may not be important to your career. I know a number of very successful people who didn’t finish college, and some not-so-successful people with advanced degrees. It ultimately comes down to the career path you choose to take and if having a college degree will be expected and required of you in that field.

Erin Doland from Unclutterer (rss)

Beyond your career, college can give you the experience and education that will let you enjoy life.

The importance of a college education depends on your field. My Harvard degree has real cachet with some of the high-achieving high schoolers and families I work with. Meanwhile, though, many of my most successful friends in tech have no college degree. While others were in school developing a resume, these guys were developing useful skills.

Eva Holtz from College Admissions Secrets (rss)

The downside of focusing on developing useful skills is that those skills may not always be in high demand.  Changes in technology can wipe out entire industries and render skills useless.  There isn’t a high demand for Morse code operators anymore–no matter how good you are at it. However, being able to write clearly, understand statistics, etc. can help you in almost any job.

It’s only important to the extent that it matters to you personally and that it matters to doing the work you love doing.

Education is always important, but for any particular person, college may not be what they really need. There are many ways to become educated.

Ariane Benefit from Neat & Simple Living (rss)

I do think we try to force too many people into college.  Part of the problem comes from making it too easy for people get into college. As the standard for what it takes to get a college degree decline, employers standards go up.  In some situations someone with a college degree today may have skills only equivalent to what a high school graduate would have had 50 years ago.

College is a great learning experience, but like most experiences-it’s what you make it. I finished college in roughly five semesters and didn’t miss a beat.

I didn’t rely on college solely to “educate” me. I sought out opportunities to learn and grow.

The best thing about college is the professors! I created life long relationships with many of them. They are truly fountains of great information-and worth the tuition.

Shama Hyder from After The Launch (rss)

I think this is where a lot of students miss out.  You have to take responsibility for your own education.  College is part of that, but just because you are getting an A in a class doesn’t mean you are reaching your full potential in that area.  You have to know what you are trying to achieve and see college as one of our many educational tools.

College is important, but it isn’t a determining factor to be successful in life. I believe that a good work ethic, a willingness to learn, and honesty will take you a long way. Having said that, I am currently attending college 20 years after graduating high school.

Rolando J from macNwin (rss)

While college doesn’t make you successful, it can often give you a wide range of experience that would be difficult to obtain in other ways. The interactions with people from different backgrounds and cultures can be out of reach for many people outside of a college environment.

Over here in Australia we call it university, and it can be terribly useful. It depends on many factors. Can you teach yourself better than others can teach you? Can you access resources essential to grasping the subject without studying a degree? I left my Bachelor of Journalism to study a Bachelor of Popular Music and I can tell you that the information you get there isn’t readily available on a Google search or in a library, especially when it comes to studio engineering and production techniques.

http://www.joelfalconer.com from Joel Falconer (rss)

I think sometimes having a college degree can help employers be more willing to invest in training you–particularly on thing that will take a long time to develop.

Note: in Canada there’s a difference between “college” and “university”.  University tends to be a four-year degree, e.g., Bachelor of Commerce.  You can get college degrees in a couple of years, and they tend to be more practical, e.g., vet assistant, some nursing, IT support, etc.

I’m referring here to “university” education…

It all depends on what you want to do with your life.  I always knew I was going to get a university degree – my parents decreed it.  But I was the first (and basically, only) person on both sides of my family to get a university degree.  I’ve since gone back and am working on my PhD, but I’ve accepted the fact that I might be overeducating myself.

Personally, I’ve got no problem with people not going to school after high school.  But you have to do something smart with your life.  If I had kids who didn’t achieve high marks, and had no interest in being lawyers, doctors, whatever, I would recommend a trade.  For example, my spouse is an airplane mechanic – I think that is the coolest job and nothing to sneeze at, even if no degree was required.  Plus, we’re getting into a shortage of tradespeople, like plumbers, electricians.  The pay is good, the hours acceptable, and it’s relatively easy to be your own boss if you have the entrepreneurial spirit.

GTD Wannabe from GTD Wannabe (rss)

I don’t know that it is possible to be over-educated. :)  In my experience, the more  I know the more people are wiling to pay for increasingly smaller portions of my time.

I think there are two important benefits (as far as business educations are concerned):

  1. It teaches a ‘way of thinking’
    Although a lot of business is simply common sense, education provides you with a way of thinking that’s aligned with businesses out there in reality.
  2. It provides an entry ticket
    The entry ticket is needed to get in. To stay in you have to prove yourself, by showing quality and profitability.

I’m educated in business, so that’s my take. I can imagine that it differs if you study Italian or Art.

Lodewijk van den Broek from How to be an Original (rss)

I think many times a degree just shows you have the vocabulary to talk about a particular area.  What you do after college will determine if you become any good at that area.  But knowing the “language” is a great starting point.


If you‘re young, and unfocused (don’t know what you want to do with your life) get a college education in SOMETHING. I was told many years ago how precocious I was, so smart and charming. So I put off school because I was so excited to get my “adult” life started.Those smarts and charm lasted only for so many years but I had accomplished so much by the time I was 30. But I was warned that my peers would catch up to me by then, and in my mid-30s, they’d be making more money and have better jobs than I had.I think some of that has become true to a certain extent. So no matter how smart or charming you think you are, get a degree in something. So you increase your opportunities later in life.

John Trosko from OrganizingLA Blog (rss)

I have seen people work through exactly what you are describing and they can eventually come out ahead of their peers.  But the same amount of effort with a college degree might have let them leap frog their peers through their mid 30s.

For me my Personal MBA has been invaluable. It consists of listening to over 60 business oriented Audio Books that cover the equivalent of a standard MBA program. You don’t get the diploma, but you learn an incredible amount. And it costs less than a thousand dollars!

You can find out more at http://personalmba.com and http://mbaontherun.com

John Richardson from Success Begins Today (rss)

Interesting.  This comes down to making sure you keep working on your education outside of college.  You can get a great deal of content from college classes for free.

Tremendously important! (I’m an English professor, so you know I’m going to say that.) I will add though that there’s a tremendous difference between getting an education and getting a degree.

The real point of college is the practice it offers in developing the ability to think and feel deeply and learn about the world and one’s possible place in it. Not to learn how to make a living, but to learn how to make a life, as I remember an old professor saying at my freshman orientation, back in the 20th century.

Michael Leddy from Orange Crate Art (rss)

We often overlook that a proper education can help you enjoy life in ways not possible otherwise–even outside of the career benefits.

Comments

  1. @MattWilsontv says

    Business majors– sure learn the theories, read the books… BUT:

    It’s about what you do outside the classroom, developing yourself, meeting people, tapping into your alum… Think they teach anything different at Harvard than they do at Community College? Nope, but it’s about the networking that you can tap at HBS. Everyone’s parents are doctors and lawyers, it’s globally known, you can walk in the door anywhere.

    Even if you go to a small school, tap that network! The more people you talk to, the luckier you get

    • Mark Shead says

      @MattWilsontv Good advice. I wish I had made better use of networking when I was getting my undergrad degree. Having studied at both a Community College and at Harvard, there is some difference in what is taught. Teachers generally have to teach toward the average student in the class and there is a difference in what that average is between different schools.

      But in general your experiences outside the classroom are what gives you skills and getting those experiences are more a result of who you know that who was teaching you.

  2. Shawn Levasseur says

    Networking is great, but surely there must be less expensive ways of doing it.

    Remember, college often leads to starting out in life not only with a leg up on your resume and knowledge, but also brick holding you back in the form of debt. That debt limits choices, taking away the opportunity of entrepreneurialism away from the young and energetic who would otherwise be best suited for such risk taking.

    Worse, if one doesn’t complete college for one reason or another, the debt remains without the benefits of a degree. And student loans can’t be discharged via bankruptcy.

  3. Anelly says

    I think depends. I read some month ago about a successful internet marketer which was considered by friends and people around him a “nobody” just a person without education. I feel sorry i don’t have the link to provide to this person, but the idea is that he put a stop and made something with his life..even he was not prepared in school.

  4. Chris Cruz says

    I believe the mistake many people make is that believing a degree will hand them a successful career.

  5. Matthew Schmeer says

    I’m in agreement with Michael Leddy (I’m a community college English professor). College is not merely about getting a degree; it’s about learning how to think about a subject in all it’s messy glory, to analyze and pull apart and recombine and extract knowledge. Each field does this in different ways, but ultimately, it is about learning not just how to think, but what to think about. David Foster Wallace said it best back in 2005 when he gave the commencement address at Kenyon College. Go read this:

    http://www.marginalia.org/dfw_kenyon_commencement.html

    If you have any doubt about the value of a college education after reading this, then perhaps you are defining “value” too narrowly.

    Yes, the primary physical benefit of a college degree is the potential financial payoff. But financial gain is not the purpose of college. “Making a life,” as Leddy quotes his old professor, is about learning that the world is a messy place, the world does not owe you anything, and that, ultimately, you will be judged by what you do and the decisions you make. Living a life is easy; making a life is hard work.

    Of course, the school of hard knocks is cheaper. So is the military. Both are excellent avenues to learn the same things. But not everyone is fit for military service, and the school of hard knocks rejects a lot of people on principle.

  6. Stephen Clarke says

    Until University begins to teach how things are done in the real world I don’t see much value in getting an education. I recently sat in on a marketing lecture at a noted University and was shocked to listen to the information being taught. It was outdated and after the class in a private discussion with the Professor he admitted that a lot of the information did not apply in today’s world. The system needs a massive change. Doctors are getting educated but learn nothing on natural products or how to run a business. Business students are getting degrees and shocked when they realize most of the material they studied doesn’t apply.

    Years ago people were hired based on their education…today people are being hired based on their experience. This is a great topic by the way and one that I find usually brings out the extremists on both sides.

    Regards,

  7. Mark Shead says

    @Matthew – I agree for the most part, but I think we are encouraging a bunch of people to go to college that really aren’t college material and it brings down the educational experience for everyone else. As a result, college is watered down and doesn’t give the same of life preparation that it once did.

    @Stephen – It sounds more like you are looking for vocational training. Traditionally this isn’t what most universities were designed to teach. For years MIT taught their introduction programming course in Lisp–a language that is anything but common. Their rational was that it is a good language to learn in and forced you to think in different ways about programing.

    Universities are starting to shift toward vocational training. Just in the last few years MIT replaced their programing course with one based on Java. I think this type of shift is detrimental in the long term. A university degree should show that you have the capability to learn just about anything and that you have a good solid foundation in a particular area. A vocational degree should show that you know how to do a particular set of tasks based on current practice.

  8. Michael Leddy says

    I second Matthew Schmeer’s suggestion about David Foster Wallace.

    Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish has some recent posts about the value of a liberal arts education. From a reader who went to Carleton College:

    I’m only 33, and many of the technical skills I learned both in biology and in computer science courses in college are obsolete just 11 years later. With the job market as uncertain and changing as it is now, it’s many of my “distribution” courses and the ones I took for fun that are becoming the most useful. Most importantly, though, Carleton’s emphasis on writing skills, which seem to be endangered at many universities, has been a major difference-maker in my career. That alone has opened numerous opportunities for me.

    In Defense of the Liberal Arts, Ctd.

  9. Albert Sparks says

    Oh I will go one further a degree is the minimum required to obtain suitable employment in modern times. Unless you are independently wealthy or parents own a business, young people will require the mandatory education to a level the represents A Bachelors degree and or preferably a master.

    • Mark Shead says

      For some jobs yes. However, there are a lot of good reliable reasonably paying jobs that don’t require college. Your plumber and electrician are two great examples. Most of them learn their trades working for someone else so they get paid to learn. They make good money without needing a college degree.

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