Tim Wolfe is the president of the University of Missouri System.  Recently he had an interesting and timely article in The Kansas City Star (“Recognize Value of Higher Education” March 5, 2014, p. A13).  In response to some of the negative press about excessive student debt, higher education’s value, inept academic enrollment counselors, and apparent victimized students, Wolfe tries to put everything back into a balanced perspective.  It is a perspective I deeply appreciate:

Soon after I became president, I realized that there was a fundamental disconnect about the perception of the value of higher education.  . . . Major news outlets like Time magazine have reported in recent years on trends in higher education, including increases in student debt or declines in job placement rates that have focused on the extreme instead of the typical.  Major company CEOs like the founder of PayPal also have recently publicly denounced higher education, declaring that ‘too many kids go to college.’

If we want to write a story that paints higher education as a total disaster, believe me, we can.  You can always find someone with a negative story.  That negative story must always be evaluated in the light of the big picture.  The many variables related to the case must also be assessed in the light of the big picture.

In reality, when we look at the big picture and put everything in perspective, we gain a more accurate understanding.  This understanding is critical to every person’s career planning success and professional growth.  Wolfe provides some important summary observations:

By any measure, a college education is still valuable.  Studies consistently show that those with a college degree earn about $1.6 million more in their lifetime than those without a college degree.  . . . As a society, we are made better by an educated population.  Our culture is more vibrant.  Our economy is richer.

Additionally, I have always been impressed by the unemployment statistics.  Anyone can argue the relative merits of pursuing higher education or choosing not to pursue it.  Pros and cons certainly exist.  Nevertheless, for the person who desires to improve his or her odds significantly of being gainfully employed, higher education is an extremely serious factor.

The seasonally adjusted February 2014 unemployment rate for persons not having a high school diploma is 9.8% (Bureau of Labor Statistics).  Having a high school diploma drops that rate to 6.4% and some college or a two-year degree drops it further to 6.2%.  Pretty good trending, would you not agree?  Finally, if we look at people having a four-year degree, a graduate degree, or a doctoral degree, the unemployment rate is a low 3.4%.  Not bad, given our rough economy.

Higher education’s value is especially clear when you consider the range of these numbers over the level of higher education.  Look at the two ends of the spectrum: less-than-high school (9.8%) versus a four-year degree or higher (3.4%).  Consistently, regardless of the measured time, the unemployment rate for a less-than-high-school-educated worker is two to four times larger than for the college-degreed worker.

This is why, when people seek my counsel about career planning, higher education is always one of my main emphases.  Education pays.  Degrees still rock.

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