(What follows is an editorial comment from Lake Superior State University President Tom Pleger shared with major Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota print outlets and national higher-education publications.)
As a university president, I am often asked about the value of college. Recently, I had an engaging conversation with several professionals outside of the Academy about the value of a four-year degree and beyond. The conversation centered around the premise that college was too expensive for most and, consequently, the return on investment was not worth it. Unfortunately, there are many who do not fully understand the value of a university education. It is more than a good job, it is much more than earning power – it is about enrichment and opportunity.
College is a transformational experience. A true university education exposes one to new ideas, new subjects, different people and perspectives, and develops the skills of critical thinking, an understanding of math and science, communication skills, information literacy, an appreciation and understanding of the human condition, an appreciation of the arts, and global awareness, and a thirst for life-long learning. These skills also enhance and foster empathy, creativity, curiosity, and adaptability. The return on investment is a series of highly sought after skills that lead to opportunity. Opportunity to travel and engage people from different cultures and backgrounds, opportunity to be involved in public service and the public good, opportunity to innovate, and opportunity to see connections between different disciplines, different perspectives, and different sets of data. These opportunities also statistically lead to greater earning power, greater employability, and flexibility when it comes to navigating changes in the economy.
I often think about the investments in time and resources that my spouse (Teresa Pleger) and I put into our education. Between the two of us, we spent 17 years in college and earned a total of five degrees. Was it worth it? Most certainly! These experiences allowed us to travel, to see the world in new ways, to appreciate the natural and social worlds around us, and to hold a number of rewarding and engaging professional positions throughout our professional careers. In terms of financial return on investment, the returns have been considerable, but the most rewarding returns have been opportunity, experience, and the development of skills that would have not been possible had we not gone to college and pursued advanced degrees.
We also often discuss the advantages we had by having parents who graduated from college. My father is a first-generation college graduate (Michigan State College, now MSU), my mother was third generation (she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison), and Teresa’s parents were first generation college graduates. Teresa’s parents both earned graduate degrees (all from UW campuses), and my father earned his law degree (from UW-Madison). When we talk with our parents about this topic, they clearly recognize the opportunities that college provided for them and they most certainly encouraged and supported us along the way.
Throughout our careers, we have helped many first-generation college students navigate college. For them, there was an additional challenge of coming from families who had little to no familiarity with college. Some of our greatest rewards have come from seeing many first-generation college students succeed and benefit greatly from their investments. To us, there is no question that the return on investment is most certainly worth it.