Soon, high school graduates will be making monumental decisions that will determine their future quality of life. These decisions include whether to attend college; if so, where; and finally, what degree program to pursue. Research shows that while not guaranteeing career success, a college degree often affords students more control over their destiny and enables a higher quality of life.
Should they decide to attend college, graduates face two additional issues that plague U.S. higher education: 1) rapidly increasing cost and 2) the declining value of a college degree. Students, parents, and employers have looked to our universities to solve these problems. Sadly, attempts to address both issues have proven a fruitless exercise, as universities are excruciatingly slow to change.
A 2020 article, “Wake Up Higher Education. The Degree Is On The Decline,” casts doubt on whether higher education will answer the wake-up call. However, if students couple early strategic planning with a careful selection of degree programs and elective courses, they can address many cost and value issues at most public universities. To improve their prospects for success, students must address strategic goals when selecting a college, including assessing possible career interests, establishing a budget, determining the amount of acceptable debt following graduation, and planning their work/course-load/life balance.
Surprisingly, few students or parents ask the right questions or plan accordingly. Too many students blindly assume a college education will produce a degree creating professional career options. Unfortunately, nothing is farther from the truth. Many college degrees do not provide graduates with skills that are valued and needed in the workplace. Instead, recent graduates often must undergo expensive postgraduate education to become employable. Even then, many graduate degrees have negative ROIs. Economists say the future of work is not about college degrees but job skills.
Surprisingly, few students or parents ask the right questions or plan accordingly.Cost issues are critical for most students since tuition and fees for a four-year undergraduate degree will average about $43,000 for in-state students and almost three times that amount for out-of-state students (averaging about $110,000 over four years). Additionally, the total cost for on-campus, in-state students will average over $90,000. As a result, on average, graduates will accrue personal debt of nearly $30,000.
An undergraduate degree should provide students with the skills and credentials to enter graduate school, obtain a professional-level position with an employer, or start their own business. Unless a student is incredibly focused and plans to become a medical professional or target a particular vocation, their goal should be to create multiple career options.
Students benefit immensely from selecting a discipline major the first week on campus despite advice to the contrary from many university guidance counselors, who recommend completing general education requirements first. For example, in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) disciplines, when students do not declare a major and consequently delay taking the required science courses, they will lose progress toward graduation. At my university, we found that STEM majors who failed to take the required introductory science courses in their first year took at least five years to graduate since higher-level classes require successful completion of the foundation courses. Additionally, loss of progress toward graduation by even one year typically increases the cost of a college education by over 20 percent.
Students should select a major based on their interest in some professional career. Unless math- or science-averse, students should consider STEM degree programs since most of these majors will prepare them for challenging and personally rewarding professional careers without requiring expensive postgraduate education. In contrast, undergraduate degrees in the arts and humanities provide students with fewer career options and typically lead to lower-paying jobs so that quality of life issues become significant concerns.
Beyond fifteen credit hours a semester, additional courses do not incur more costs at most universities. If students take one additional class each semester, they will not increase their educational expenses and will graduate sooner. Even though the additional course load may reduce students’ free time, the rewards are enormous. The financial benefits of early graduation are clear, as is an earlier start in the workplace.
At my university, we found that STEM majors who failed to take the required introductory science courses in their first year took at least five years to graduate.Some courses that employers value are: 1) One-Semester Accounting, focusing on identifying, recognizing, and understanding the critical elements within profit & loss statements and balance sheets; 2) Negotiation Strategies, addressing everyday transactions such as purchasing products, interacting with children or spouses, and engaging in business; 3) Technology Commercialization, preparing STEM majors to start technology-driven enterprises; 4) Business Law, dealing with contract law and preparing graduates for personal and business-related legal situations; 5) Public Speaking, focusing on the communication that is critical for success in any personal or professional endeavor; and, finally, 6) Professional Selling, addressing the entire sales process, psychology, and self-marketing.
Some courses are locked within specific degree programs and are unavailable to other students. Examples may include business law, negotiation strategies, professional selling, and accounting courses within business colleges. However, these courses often do not require prerequisites for student success, and department heads can grant special permission. Therefore, students need to explore this option.
Students can take courses such as accounting, public speaking, writing, and foreign languages within the 12-14 courses (42 credit hours) of core curriculum requirements for most degree programs. Judicious course selection can enhance the value of a degree and reduce the cost. Unfortunately, without planning, students can unwittingly take electives that have little or no practical value in building their portfolio of strategic skills.
A relatively new concept involves industry-vetted courses and certificate programs, where the curriculum has been reviewed, critiqued, and approved in advance by hiring managers. Such programs provide graduates with many skills related to their degrees that have value in the workplace and often lead directly to employment, sometimes even before graduation.
Industry internships are often available as three-credit-hour courses and enable students to learn the expectations of Corporate America, understand the workplace environment, and use the skills they have learned in their classrooms. In many instances, job offers result directly from students’ internship experiences. Industry employment during summers is an alternative to acquiring similar experiences.
Acquiring a conversational foreign language skill, especially one the student can use professionally, is invaluable. The benefits of learning a foreign language are the cultural and international perspectives gained. In addition, foreign language skills enable graduates to distinguish themselves on job applications, during interviews, and in the selection process.
Many students see a college degree as an exercise in passing tests, getting a particular grade, or gaming the system. If so, they have missed the point and will not receive an education. Instead, acquiring skills that have value in life and the workplace should be the goal of a college education. Employers ultimately determine the value of a college degree.
Fifty years ago, most universities promoted a liberal education without any career or professional focus. Then, most large multinational corporations hired new employees who received extensive on-the-job training and comprehensive professional development. Today, few corporations provide such programs and instead expect new employees to have the skills necessary to do the job. As a result, in 2019, over 60 percent of employers required previous work experience for entry-level positions in their industry or business sector. All students can address this need by judiciously selecting optional courses beyond those required for many majors.
The above strategies benefit students in all degree programs, particularly those pursuing degrees in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, where the curriculum typically has the least relevance to employers. Additionally, there is infinite flexibility and no “one-size-fits-all” recommendation. Every day our world changes and will continue to change even more rapidly. Thus, so should guidance in developing college educational strategies.
Laurence I. Peterson is dean emeritus, College of Science & Mathematics, Kennesaw State University, and former vice president of research with BASF and Celanese Corporation. This article represents his views and not necessarily those of the university. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.