As the president of a private regional college that intensively competes for undergraduates, I am acutely aware of the questions many families, officials and journalists have about the cost, value and necessity of our enterprise.
Institutions including Lebanon Valley College face demographic shifts, constrained family incomes, student preferences toward professionally oriented majors over some of the traditional liberal arts, and rapid technological change.
In a recent Hechinger Report article titled “Is the college degree outdated?” Laura Pappano reports on the potential of “small bites” to supplant the traditional college degree as a preferred form of higher education.
Today, online learning and stackable credentials must be part of what we offer, and we have added these into our model by building on our existing strengths. But small bites and stackable credentials, important as they are, cannot substitute for a complete college education.
The Hechinger article quotes the executive director of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation as saying that “employers have ‘less and less confidence’ in traditional degrees.” That’s simply not our experience at Lebanon Valley College. Eighty-six percent of our alumni are employed or in graduate school (or both) within a year of graduation.
In their 2016 Workforce-Skills Preparedness Report, PayScale and the executive development firm Future Workplace found that CEOs and human resources professionals seek recent college graduates who possess writing and public speaking proficiency, critical thinking and leadership skills, interpersonal skills and the ability to work as part of a team. It may be possible to “buy and learn only what you need and want,” as the Hechinger article states, but an effective traditional college experience pushes students to learn beyond their own bubbles, exceed their perceived limits and discover new strengths and interests they have not thought about — skills that are crucial to career success.
A complete college education also continues to drive upward mobility. For example, the 2014 Pew Social Trends study, “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College,” reports that millennial college graduates are more likely to be employed full-time and are earning $17,500 per year more than those with less education. Millennial college graduates are also more likely to report that their “education has been ‘very useful’ in preparing them for work and a career,” and to say that their degrees are or will be “worth it.”
Our own graduates give similar feedback. Five and 10 years out, our alumni credit their education with preparing them for their jobs and for contributing to their growth in working as part of a team, communicating effectively, applying knowledge and a host of other skills employers seek.
Of course, a college education has value beyond delivering job skills. Lebanon Valley College’s students enroll because they want to develop as whole people. Whichever majors they choose, they also participate in athletics, in the arts, leadership programs, student government, service work and study abroad. And they learn across generations and cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds through in-person academic and co-curricular experiences.
Most of our students also want much more than a job after school. Whether they are studying to become physical therapists who heal injuries, actuaries who manage risk, or digital communications majors who improve online experiences, our students pursue a degree because they want to live fulfilling, well-rounded lives and make the world a better place.
Last week, Lebanon Valley College students showcased their scholarship, research and creative work at an annual campus event called Inquiry. More than 100 peers, professors and family members showed up to learn from and support students who have thoroughly explored topics such as invasive local plant species, the biochemistry of neuroblastoma cells, the decline of oak trees, effective teaching methods, historical analyses of authoritarian governments and augmented reality.
Some of these projects will launch our graduates toward advanced degrees and careers; others will help students clarify their goals, develop their talents or build the skills to solve larger or different problems later on in life. All of them are proof that a college degree is far from outdated.
Colleges and universities have the resources, the expertise and the structures in place to provide both high-quality small bites of education and the more sustaining, nourishing and impactful full-course meal of a college degree.
By extension, we provide this great and enduring benefit to society by preparing future teachers, business leaders, ministers, artists, musicians, criminal justice workers, accountants and healthcare professionals with career skills built on a strong foundation of deep and broad learning that has proven value.
Do we need college? Absolutely.
Dr. Lewis E. Thayne is the president of Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania.
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