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President's Perspective: Why Go to College?

November 11, 2013

College is not for every high school graduate in Wyoming, but if it might be right for you or someone you know, it is well worth considering. Here are five reasons why.

-- Lifetime earnings. College graduates are estimated to earn far more money over the course of a lifetime than are high school graduates. All estimates I have seen of the difference in income are over $1 million. And that’s in today’s dollars. If one assumes inflation, as inevitably will occur, the difference will be substantially greater. Thus, if you or someone you know wants to have the income properly to take care of oneself and one’s family, a college education bestows a decided advantage.

-- A “credentialing” society. It used to be that the ticket to success was a high school diploma. That was then. Today that ticket is a college diploma. There are all kinds of opportunities available to college graduates that are not available to high school graduates. These opportunities include not only jobs, but also more favorable treatment in almost anything one applies for over the course of a lifetime.

-- Job advancement. There are jobs out there for high school graduates, but think not just about the first job, but also the second, third and fourth jobs. College graduates have a much easier time finding subsequent jobs, and receiving promotions in their current jobs. Often, those with just a high school diploma get that first job and then get stuck in it, doing the same thing year after year with reduced chances of advancement. When a promotion becomes available, the high school graduate without a college degree simply is more likely to be passed over. To avoid that scenario, attending college shortly after high school is the best way to go. But the significant number of nontraditional students in Wyoming higher education shows that attending college later in life can make a big difference as well -- that college isn’t just for recent high school graduates.

-- Networking. College is one of the best places -- maybe the best place -- to form the networks of friends and colleagues who will be important to you later in life. Students in high school sometimes do not realize the importance of large and diverse networks in terms of providing jobs and other kinds of opportunities. In life, it is not just what you know, but whom you know, and many of the people who later can matter in one’s life are people one meets in college -- whether other college students, professors, staff or campus visitors. (In my own case, many of the opportunities I’ve had in life are in large part a result of just one professor and one staff member whom I came to know in college.)

-- Lifelong learning and thinking skills. It may seem unfair to you that college graduates have so many advantages over high school graduates, but there is a reason for it. College is a place where students develop many of the learning and thinking skills needed for success in jobs and in life. One not only acquires knowledge, but also skills in creative thinking, critical thinking, wise thinking and the like. One also develops self-discipline and good work habits as one copes with the challenges of college life. College is also a great place to develop ethical-leadership skills. Employers recognize the advantages of a college education for developing these skills and hence often prefer college graduates for promotions and advancement.

College is not for everyone. But it may be more valuable than many people think. In my experience, there are three main reasons high school students sometimes fail seriously to consider going on for a college degree.

First, some high school students believe they can get a job without a college degree. They may be right, but as shown above, whatever the short-term job prospects, the long-term job prospects are much better with a college degree.

Second, high school students may believe that they cannot afford college. But college, especially in Wyoming, is surprisingly affordable, in part as a result of uniquely low tuition charged by colleges within the state and in part because of the Hathaway program of state scholarships, a program unique within this country. So, college may be more affordable than students realize, and for those who cannot afford the full price, there are many possibilities for scholarships and loans. Wyoming graduates students with lower levels of debt than are found in most other parts of the country.

Third, some students look at their high school records or their ACT scores and just assume that college is beyond their reach. But community colleges accept virtually all of their applicants, and the University of Wyoming, our only public four-year college, accepts more than 95 percent of applicants. Moreover, UW is creating an alternate route to admission that will look at characteristics beyond high school grades and ACT scores. The new procedure will take into consideration the creative, practical, ethical and wisdom-based skills underlying active citizenship and leadership. These characteristics will be assessed by optional essays and by participation in extracurricular and work activities. Do not assume, therefore, that your high school grades or standardized test scores preclude a college degree.

The bottom line is that college is not for everyone, but it may well be for you, your children, or particular high school students you know. A college degree confers on its recipients enormous benefits. Every high school student ought seriously to consider giving college a try, if not right after high school, then soon thereafter -- or even later in life.

Robert J. Sternberg is president of the University of Wyoming.

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