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College success can’t be measured by money alone

By Sawa Kurotani / Special to The Japan NewsIt’s the graduation season again here in the United States, and my university, too, just went through its commencement festivities. The last few years, I had many com-mencement-related tasks as an academic administrator. On my sabbatical this year, I had, instead, a chance to observe the proceedings as a bystander, take in the scenery, and cheer on the graduates as they marched to the commencement ceremony. As I watched smiling faces of graduates and their families, I began to wonder what it meant to be “successful” in college and in life.

One of the most compelling reasons for pursuing a college degree today seems to be the long-term financial advantage, and its success is increasingly measured by the return on investment (ROI). Statistics have shown that college graduates earn significantly more than high school graduates and that they tend to have a better chance at stable employment. A 2014 analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank concluded that, even with the rising cost of college education, “for an average student, college education remains a good investment.” The analysis of future earnings potential by college major also abounds. For example, “The Economic Value of College Majors,” a George Washington University study, shows a division between STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and business majors on the higher end of the scale, and arts, humanities and liberal arts majors on the other. The bottom line for the college-bound is clear: Everyone with aptitude should go to college and major in STEM or business.

This bottom line affects the institutional decisions of colleges and universities of all types and sizes. Even small liberal arts institutions (my own among them), formerly aloof toward vocational aspects of college education, are now appealing to the ROI rationale and ramping up career-development resources to lure promising high school students. STEM and business programs are overextended to accommodate a surge of incoming students, while liberal arts majors struggle for enrollment.

What I have seen, as a faculty member and an administrator, tells me that human factors make this otherwise clear-cut investment decision rather complicated. For one thing, not everyone is equipped to pursue a degree — and a career — in STEM or business.

Many students who blindly follow the bottom line into STEM and business programs find out they lack aptitude or interest to pursue these majors successfully. By the time they finally decide to seek help or reconsider their course of study, they are already far behind in earned credits to complete their degree on time. That, in turn, has a negative effect on another important measure of success in college: the four-year graduation rate. During the three years I served as an associate dean, I worked with a steady stream of students, who felt as though their life was over if they could not continue in their prehealth, engineering or another professional track, and no word of wisdom could help them open their eyes to see other opportunities outside these paths.

Don’t take me wrong — STEM and business are critical areas of study in today’s world and training students for a professional path is a worthy educational purpose. I also understand the financial worries and the amount of debt this generation of college students must often take on for their education. What worries me is, though, the single-minded pursuit of careers based primarily on financial advantage and the faulty assumption that completing a degree in one of those majors will lead directly and necessarily to a well-paying career.

College students (and often, their parents) under the spell of the bottom line don’t recognize that college is just a small piece of the puzzle. With the exception of highly specialized fields (like medicine), your major in college does not determine what you end up doing for the rest of your life.

Employer survey results have shown, time and time again, that they don’t expect specialized knowledge from college graduates; rather, they value basic skills that are essential in any contemporary workplace, such as basic quantitative reasoning, written and oral communication, collaboration and leadership. Students who can demonstrate these competencies have a better chance of landing a good job than any piece of paper with a degree printed on it. Of hundreds of sociology/anthropology majors I’ve met in the last 18 years, for example, only a handful actually went on to become a sociologist or anthropologist; instead, most pursued a variety of professions, including education, social work, mental health, criminal justice, business, marketing, journalism and law, in which their sociological/anthropological background worked to their advantage.

But is a job all that there is to life? Is it all we need to sustain ourselves for 60 plus years after college? If that is all, my low-paying humanist occupational niche makes absolutely no sense, considering all the time, effort and, of course, money, that went into getting a PhD. I was also a fool to leave my better-paying administrative position and go back to teaching. Yes, it’s important for me to support myself sufficiently and to save enough for modest retirement. But it matters even more that I’m happy doing what I do professionally.

Engaging students in positive learning experiences rather than in a tearful closed-door meeting, or using my creativity to come up with exciting new courses, instead of wasting it on solving a problem someone else created — having that choice is, to me, the privilege that no money can buy.

Congratulations to the graduating class of 2019 everywhere. A long road is ahead of you. Take your time and find each your own best life as you go!

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.Speech

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