The value of a college degree

April 1, 2010 at 5:21 pm (Random Thoughts) (, , )

A friend of mine has recently been told by her advisor that she shouldn’t persue a higher degree because she is a newly single mom with three kids.  Another person asked her why it mattered, because its “just a piece of paper”, and she got rightly irked and even infuriated, because that “just  a piece of paper” is years of hard work for her and something she feels she has earned. And she has; in December of this year, she will graduate.  It  got me thinking about my family, and about the generation that is mine and before mine. 

A college degree used to be an extra fancy thing that was rare and special.  Even when my dad was just out of high school, it was expected for you to get a job and marry and all that – college was for the rich kids or the ones who wanted to be lawyers or physicists and so forth. The average guy didn’t do it.

But it didn’t matter – you didn’t have to have papers to document your intelligence. You went out there and worked.  My father learned through working under knowledgeable guys how to be an electrical engineer – and a very good one at that.  My grandfather worked for Ball Aerospace on moon rockets, and learned to fix clocks – even got invited to work on Bg Ben in the 70s.  All learned without a degree.

Even my generation is not full of folk who went to college right after high school, even though more are going back now.  Look in community college classroms – they are full of 40 somethings trying to start over in this economy.

So now why is it you have to prove yourself with a piece of paper? Have we suddenly become incapable of learning without a college?  Yeah, I have a college degree. yeah, it helped me get a job at a museum, which taught me so much more, which has led me to a different skill set – several actually – which make me just as valuable an employee. In fact, it make me more valuable.

What did my degree get me? Deeper research skills, which serve me well now. It got me a foot in the door at museums.  It got me deep into debt, of the kind my husband calls indentured servitude.

But the skills I learned as a child – how to sew and knit and crochet and cook and woods skills- and the skills I learned as a young adult – how to put together a newspaper, how to take, develop and print photos, how to write a cohesive and consise article people will want to read – the skills I learned as an adult and though the museum – how to take care of kids, how to make hats, make a broom, run a store, run a treadle press and treadle sewing machine, use a 1800s cookstove, how to walk and act in a full length skirt 24/7 and not set myself on fire over an open hearth or pit fire – these are the skills I use today.

But there are people out there who put all this emphasis on a degree, like it’s proof of worthiness or that you have the skills to jump right in to a complex job- and for a lot of people it’s neither.

But I’m not knocking those who get a degree, because it IS a great deal of effort, time, and clearly money.  My daughter spends 50-60 hours a week outside classes on her school work.  I spent about half of that, and my dear friend spends at least 30 hours per week on her school work.  And then there’s those of us who got on with life while in college or just before college – married, had kids and then took classes.  Raising small kids is hard work – don’t let people lie to you about that; it’s a full time job.  And when you add keeping house and going to school on top, it’s even more work, even if you have a partner to help you.  My son spent his first 5 months in college classrooms with either his father or I. Probably helped stimulate his mind, or maybe professors just have soothng voices (explanation for those who sleep through classes!)

But it can be done – there’s lots of us out here as proof. 

But that piece of paper needs to stop being used as an indicator of worth and value – you can get value and an education without it, IF you try. And there is NO excuse for not learning something new every week, even if it’s an odd fact or new recipe or a skill you’re going to use the rest of your life.

And while I argue it needs to stop being an indicator of worth, it also needs to stop being an excuse, on several levels.  Today, there are plenty of folks with degrees and no jobs, because they are told they are “overeducated”.  Make up your minds – do we need degrees or not?  And if that person is that highly educated and still applied for a job with your company, don’t you think they have a clue what job it was they applied for?  They need a job, they’re willing to accept the pay level, hire them.

It needs to stop being an excuse for NOT doing something just because you don’t have a degree. So what? get up, go to the library, check out some books and LEARN something.  Find someone who works with their hands and learn to do what they do. Sit down and actually listen to an old person’s stories. Apply for that job anyway.

And stop degrading people because they choose to make the decision to get a degree, even if it is going to be hard – it is their choice and their lives. They don’t need negative comments, they need support, even if it’s just a “good Job”.

Bottom line, the degree is a tool and maybe a set of skills.  Use it as such, and realize that even if you don’t have this tool, there are plenty of other tools you own that you can use.  Respect the person and what they can prove they can do, not their “pedigree”. After all, a pet is loved for itself and not just its papers. Time for humans to be too.


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