Higher Ed 101

Brenau University President Ed Schrader listens along as commencement speaker Anne-Marie Slaughter addresses the graduating students in the Brenau Women's College.A continual irritant for me as a university president is reading in a publication like The Wall Street Journal a headline that says something like “Is a Four-year College Degree Really Worth It?”

In these pieces some higher education expert (often “self-appointed”) seizes on a bit of data about unemployment rates among recent graduates or anecdotal evidence about an Ivy League alumnus with $100,000 worth of student loan debt and a job as a Starbucks barista. Such an article might point to examples of medical technology graduates of a highly-focused two-year program at a vocational college who immediately begin earning more money than those graduating from a four-year college program. One article earlier this year pointed out that community college health care graduates in Tennessee earned an average of $5,300 more than state university graduates in the same field.

These essays leave me wondering whether the authors even understand what higher education is. They make a valid point – IF you think your university should be a vocational school!

Remarkable for omission, the articles fail to mention that the voc-tech grads mostly will keep earning at that same level for the rest of their careers. They cannot advance to family nurse practitioners, clinical supervisors or physical therapists without additional education. The essayists prance merrily past solid data, for example, that deal with lifetime earnings potential for those with different levels of higher education. They dismiss, almost as if it were merely a patently obvious aside, that employment statistics significantly favor those with more advanced degrees. They also ignore the fact of life that one usually cannot enroll in graduate school without having first completed an undergraduate degree. They never mention studies that show employers want well-rounded employees with broadly based liberal arts educations.

But I will save for a later column the point-by-point refutation of this notion that there is a lopsided value proposition for individuals’ investments in higher education. For today I point out that Brenau still places value on liberal arts-based higher education at all levels. The so-called four-year college degree is the foundation – Higher Ed 101.

The Brenau 2025 strategic plan projects that the most dramatic growth in the next decade will be in the area of graduate school enrollments. Brenau’s vision presumes that any student who enrolls as an undergraduate will go on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees because of workplace and lifestyle demands for better-educated people. However, that fact does not suggest that Brenau sees diminishing returns on undergraduate education. True, half of our projected future enrollment of 5,000 students will be candidates for master’s degrees and doctorates. However, the growth projection also means that the other 2,500 will be undergraduates, many of them the “nontraditional” adult learner.

Some of the nagging essays do suggest that colleges and universities should reassess and sometimes revamp how they provide value to students. I totally agree. Rich and stimulating education demands that you stand on the foundation of history and tradition but are not mired in it. We do that at Brenau constantly. In fact, we have just entered into a long-term contract with an organization that specializes in recruiting and supporting adult students, particularly those in the undergraduate ranks.

Both current nontraditional undergraduates and future Brenau adult learners stand as the best evidence to the value of university education. Many will borrow significant sums of money to acquire that Brenau degree. They must find time for school amid demands of families and jobs, sacrifice leisure activities and other pursuits for study, and stretch the time it actually takes for them to get a “four-year degree.”

In the post from this online edition of Brenau Window you will read testimonials from Brenau alumni and current students. Some of them have made and are making those sacrifices. For them the degree is a great investment – not only because of the long-term employment prospects but also because of the lifetime residual value in helping them become happy, intellectually stimulated, critically thinking human beings.

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