This weekend was fall graduation at the university where I work and I imagine many others across the country.
With a flip of the tassel, graduates will now face the unending question of “So, what are your plans?”
For the students earning a degree in something that isn’t also a job title, such as history over accounting, these questions will have the added pleasure of being laced with judgment, as many will really be asking: “So what are you going to do with that major?”
Colleges and universities are also facing this question these days, bearing immense pressure to show the government and society at large the return on investment for its students. With education’s growing price tag and the millions of dollars the federal government pours into higher education through student loan programs, this isn’t shocking or unreasonable.
But many times the proof that institutions are providing value is stated in two outcomes: job placement and salaries. And what else can it be? It’s hard, if not impossible, to evaluate what students learn, how deeply students were inspired by their professors, how many late-night conversations with roommates from different backgrounds led to a changed perspective, or how studying abroad taught them they could take risks and be okay.
Those earning liberal arts degrees can be especially impacted by this, particularly since many of them will likely be in graduate school for years after their undergrad degree (the same time they are being surveyed about their salary) or work in areas that are not high-earning like finance and engineering. And thank goodness some people don’t work just for a salary (not saying investment bankers and engineers do, it’s just an added bonus). We sure would have a shortage of teachers, historians, writers, counselors, non-profit professionals, etc. That’s a scary thought.
And it’s not only liberal arts majors who face this. For the last five years, I have worked with mainly business students. While many of them plan to follow their business majors into business jobs, some students want to take their accounting degree and teach. Or work for a religious institution or non-profit organization with their finance education. Or go to graduate school for something completely unrelated. And they worry. They worry if they do these things, they are “wasting” their degree.
I cringe when I hear them say that, and I try to reassure students that the knowledge they have acquired from their college major (and all of their college experience) is a part of them and can never be wasted. That is the beauty of both formal and informal education. You can default on all of your students loans, and it is still yours to keep because it’s not a piece of paper or a paycheck, it is internalized into your being.
And then I read a quote from an amazing writer who, of course, said in one line what I take forever to explain to a student. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, is also the writer of the “Dear Sugar” advice column (now a podcast that I am obsessed with).
In a column a few years ago, the letter writer was a professor and asked Cheryl (who at the time was penning the column anonymously) for advice for her English and creative writing majors who were about to graduate and getting discouraged from the question of how they will use their degree. Cheryl responds with many insights, but her closing words had me reaching for my inspiration journal. When asked what they will do with their English degrees, Cheryl hopes the students will say:
Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.
Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.
Now, I was practically running circles around my house when I read this. I looked like my son when he is playing his favorite game of You Can Change My Diaper/Feed Me/Pry This Dangerous Object Out Of My Hand When You Catch Me.
Maybe it says something about me that in the sea of deep and profound quotations, this is the one that gets me revved up. But it captures so perfectly what I have always believed about the value of education. It is with you always, not just at your job or in your office. It is so much more than that.
And this advice is not just for newly-minted grads. Plenty of middle-aged adults still put an abundance of stock into the time and money they invested in their degree(s). Perhaps to the point of staying in a field they no longer (and likely never did) enjoy and passing on opportunities they deem out of their area of expertise.
I grappled with this personally, particularly when deciding if I would go back to work after the twins were born. And while there are many reasons why I ultimately chose to, one of them is because I felt like I would be “wasting” my degrees if I didn’t. As this is a decision I recommit to regularly, it is still something that crosses my mind. If I’m being honest, the real issue is probably the concern that others will think this about me, not so much that I believe it myself. I see my education in use every day — the least of which is probably at work!
For the record, I am not against colleges and universities having some sort of metrics or accountability. While I despise the consumerism approach to higher education, with skyrocketing costs, it is reasonable to question and assess if higher education is providing its students (NOT customers) with a valuable experience. Being employable is one of those outcomes, as are many others. And I do not think higher education is the right or necessary choice for everyone. Learning, thankfully, can happen anywhere.
But for those who do earn a college degree, like all life experiences, you will “use” what you have learned in direct and subtle ways throughout your life. There will be times you are using it and you don’t even realize it. And even if you don’t believe me, it’s still yours. Yours to carry around with you and do as you see fit. I hope you cherish it.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year readers! I look forward to picking the blog back up in 2016!