UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls

Community Picnic 

Brats, Music, and Is a College Degree Still Worth It?

Tuesday, August 2, 2016  |  by Dean Van Galen

More than 200 people from the community gathered on campus July 26 for an old-fashioned community picnic. During a time of summer heat, political conventions, and optimism for both Packers and Vikings fans, it was a time to enjoy good conversations and Falcon Foods brats and ice cream. The event was also a celebration of the impact of UWRF and the tremendous support we enjoy from our community. The evening was topped off with a great performance by the St. Croix Valley Community Band at our Melvin Wall Amphitheatre. Frankly, it was an uplifting occasion for the university at a time when many people are questioning the value of a college degree.

As a first-generation college student, I have seldom questioned the value of college. Education has not only transformed my life, but the lives of so many of my friends and family. I have seen first-hand the tremendous impact that a quality college experience has on UW-River Falls students (43% of whom, as freshmen, are first-generation college students). The transformational impact of education seems obvious to me. Yet, it is fair for citizens who invest in public universities such as the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to ask questions about whether college graduates have good career prospects or whether or not a college degree is worth it.  

Over the past six months, I have been speaking with many alumni, community groups, legislators, and anyone else who will listen about the university and, more broadly, about the value of higher education. I have heard some enthusiastic support that assures me that education remains a core value for so many citizens in Wisconsin. I have also heard legitimate concerns, and some comments that paint a troubling picture of higher education. Surely, higher education (and universities including UWRF) is not faultless and must seek to be affordable and accountable, and to evolve over time to meet the needs of students and society. That said, here is some basic information that I have been sharing around the St. Croix Valley and the state of Wisconsin that reinforces the value of a college degree:

More education results in better prospects of employment. In 2015, the national unemployment rate for those 25 years old or older with a bachelor's degree was 2.8%, compared to 5.4% for those with only a high school diploma, and 8.0% for those without a high school diploma. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey)

More education correlates with higher lifetime earnings. On average, a worker with a bachelor's degree will earn $2.27 million over a lifetime, 84% more than someone with only a high school diploma. Lifetime earnings by level of educational attainment are:

Less than a high school diploma:  $973,000
High school diploma:  $1.3 million
Some college/no degree:  $1.55 million
Associate's degree:  $1.73 million
Bachelor's degree:  $2.27 million
Master's degree:  $2.67 million

(The College Payoff, Georgetown University Center on Education and The Workforce)

I would note that a college experience is designed to do more than prepare a graduate for their first job. Many of tomorrow's jobs and career paths have not yet even been created or envisioned, and it is people with flexible, widely applicable abilities and insights that will be best prepared for this uncertain future. As part of a college education, students not only gain specific knowledge and skills (particularly in a major), but they also strengthen their ability to think critically, solve problems, communicate well, be creative, adaptable and innovative, and understand and work with others who are different from themselves (e.g. part of the value of diversity). Many of these attributes are developed through study of the liberal arts-an essential part of the college experience and for preparing for a life of citizenship beyond the campus.

Beyond the career and economic implications of education, there are impacts on citizenship and decision-making. Some examples include:

More education correlates with increased commitment to volunteerism. 42% of those with a bachelor's degree or higher report volunteering, compared to 17% among those with only a high school diploma. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013)

More education correlates with higher voting rates. 73% of those age 25-44 with a bachelor's degree or higher voted in either the 2010 or 2012 election, compared to 42% for those with only a high school diploma. (U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Census Bureau, 2010d, 2012i, Table 5)

In citing this data, let me be very clear that in my view, a college degree does not make you a more valuable or important person (neither of my parents graduated from high school, and they led lives of great value and meaning). However, information such as that listed above contradict what we hear -- sometimes stated as "fact" -- that college graduates can't get jobs, live in their parents basements, care only about themselves, and so on. But data indicates that completion of a college degree has strong and positive impacts on the individual, as well as on communities and the larger society. I would argue it's a worthy investment for students, families, and the public.