Every generation faces new obstacles that often arise from consequences of choices made by those who came before us. For those of the Millennial generation, our newest obstacle is the massive economic aftershocks from the Great Recession of 2008. The specter of student loans, an unfavorable labor market, and the realization that the fairytale we grew up with – that a college education equals effortless access to a well-paying job – isn’t true, have made it difficult for many to see the value in post-secondary education. However, that doesn’t mean that value doesn’t exist, or has lessened.
Disillusionment with Secondary Education
As a recent graduate living in the post-Great Recession United States, I have been confronted with the growing wave of anger toward university education. Online, televised, and printed media alike are quick to remind new graduates and those well on their way to joining them, that for us the cornerstones of adulthood – marriage, parenthood, ownership of property – seem a long way off. And with a lukewarm job market that prizes experience above all else, it would seem that my fellow graduates and I have been pushed into a career catch-22: we need experience to get a job, but we need that elusive job to get experience.
So, relegated to the unpaid internships and minimum-wage fast food jobs that characterized our undergraduate career, new graduates find ourselves doing exactly what we were told a college education would help us to avoid: flipping burgers. Not only that, but the omnipresent phantom of student loans is looming close by for many. Overinflated tuition costs certainly have not aided in the battle to maintain morale among those with collegiate aspirations.
With all the hurdles set before us, it is little wonder many of us have become a little bitter toward that piece of paper we received after four years of stress and cramped writing hands. That’s why it is key to remember the bigger picture: coming into adulthood means that we – the generation of the internet and instant gratification – must be patient with our future as it unfolds.
Our disillusionment with our education, however, doesn’t lie in college education itself, but our collective realization that post-secondary education is not, in fact, a get-rich quick scheme.
In fact, it is much more than that.
The value of a college education
When I was still an undergraduate student, I often ran into new students, freshmen and transfers alike, who sought advice from me on how to make their college experience more fulfilling. How did I find and obtain paid internships? Have I always been so at ease with public speaking? How can I be a more successful student?
More often than not, I answered these questions with one succinct statement: the value of a college education doesn’t rest only in the classroom or in the diploma one receives at its conclusion, but in the whole of campus life. A college, whether a four-year university or a community college, is a breeding ground for new ideas, new visions, new connections, and new projects. The tuition we pay (or paid) doesn’t just go to checks cut to professors and high-profile chancellors, but to funds for on-campus organizations, research, community service projects, sports, organized festivities and more.
It was my entrance into my Alma Mater, the University of California Riverside, that opened up my opportunity to work as a Physics Research Assistant, to serve as a board member for two academic honors societies, to become proficient in a foreign language, to intern with government institutions and to have in-depth conversations with some absolutely brilliant people (students and faculty alike) all within the span of four very busy years. I don’t know where else I could have had access to so many wonderful opportunities to learn new skills, and if I had wanted to there is so much more I could have done.
Not only did my being a college student open up opportunities to learn new skills and to work with a very diverse group of people, but it surrounded me with a wealth of new information. I confronted, debated, and came to terms with the views of those I disagreed with, and developed an appreciation for the differing views and life experiences of others. The arising of the ‘Arab Spring’ during my time as an undergrad inspired my need to understand the goings-on of the world around me, has made me more aware of the social inequities in my own society, and has pressed me to find workable solutions for the problems my own community faces.
Now, it may be my background in Political Science talking, but becoming more informed, better educated, and better skilled as a civil society certainly makes college education worthwhile.
It’s just a piece of paper, right?
Wrong! …well yes, your physical degree is a piece of paper, in much the same way that a trophy is just a piece of metal (or plastic). But what it symbolizes is much more profound. A degree is a symbol of academic accomplishment, something that not many people have the opportunity to pursue, and even fewer, to finish. Those four or more years of stressful all-nighters, finals, study groups, and volunteer or paid work have culminated in the honor of being called a college graduate.
Not only this, but it symbolizes the knowledge one has gained as an undergraduate scholar. For example, the universal skills one inevitably gains while in college are versatile: organization, time management skills, oral and written communication, and critical thinking, to name a solid few. Couple this with one’s specific area of study, and any extracurricular involvement, and one finds potent, weighted importance: all that we have accomplished, and all that we have yet to accomplish is drawn up in that bit of paper.
So yes, maybe right now I am using that glorious potential to be the best Target employee I can be. But I am also using it to organize a food drive for the local homeless shelter, to pursue my desire to become an accomplished writer, and to continue teaching myself new skills. Just like beauty, value is in the eye of the beholder, and if one has not considered the merits of something, it is a fault of theirs and not those who pursue it. Considering this, there is certainly no use in devaluing the goals one has accomplished simply because the expected reward (in this case a dream career somewhere with a corner office and a great view) has yet to present itself. Obtaining one’s Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science is a great feat in its own right, a large step in the right direction; like all other choices in life, it is up to us where we go from there.
Eye of the Beholder
It is important to remember that we don’t live in a vacuum. There is no cookie-cutter method for landing exactly where you want to go, because we are always impacted by the goings-on around us. The Great Recession, and its projected effects on the Millennial generation, are a clear example of this. But setbacks do not mean inevitable failure by any means. In fact, as expensive as college education has become, the numbers still point to a clear advantage for college graduates in the current labor market versus those without a college degree.
The disillusionment with one’s academic accomplishments in the face of unemployment and underemployment can be a great hindrance to success, both for current students and recent graduates. However, there is great value to be found in post-secondary education, a wealth of opportunities ready for the taking, experiences that ready us for the ‘real world’ after graduation. It is a source of justifiable pride to receive one’s college diploma, a symbol of all that we are able to accomplish. The trick is to remember that it is.
Catherine L. Williams recently graduated from the University of California Riverside with a Bachelor’s in Political Science. She hopes to pursue a PhD in Political Science and do research on identity politics and economics in developing countries. She is currently working on becoming a published author and poet. Follow her on Instagram at @msblackcat93!