Higher Education A Worthwhile Journey

February 10, 2013
Daily Press Op-Ed, page 23
Dr. John T. Dever, President
Thomas Nelson Community College

The past year has seen much questioning in the media about the value of college.  From a public policy perspective, the issue is whether it makes sense to continue to promote wide access to higher education.   From the perspective of individual choice, the issue is whether college is worth the cost in terms of time and expense, particularly given the startling fact that student debt now exceeds what consumers owe by credit card.  Writing in the Washington Post, the economist Robert Samuelson breezily opined: “The college-for-all crusade has outlived its usefulness.  Time to ditch it.  Like the crusade to make all Americans homeowners, it’s now doing more harm than good.”  And in a column appearing in The Daily Press, George Mason University economist Walter Williams dourly observed: “There’s no evidence that a college education is an economic imperative.  A good part of our higher education problem is that a large percentage of students currently attending college are ill-equipped and incapable of doing real college work.”

These querulous commentaries run counter to broad-based efforts to increase degree attainment.  In Virginia, the General Assembly unanimously approved Governor Bob McDonnell’s Top Jobs legislation, with its cornerstone goal of adding 100,000 additional degrees to the Commonwealth over the next 15 years, with particular attention to the STEM-H fields—science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and health professions.  Nationally, the Obama administration seeks for America to regain its once preeminent position as the country with the largest percentage of college graduates—we have now slipped to being 14th among industrialized nations.  And here on the Peninsula, major industries and agencies like the Peninsula Council for Workforce Development continuously tell us that a highly educated and well-trained workforce is critical for sustaining and advancing our economy.

Perhaps the first thing we need to realize is that for some time now “college” has meant much more than a traditional four-year degree.  It encompasses a wide variety of post-secondary opportunities that include associate degrees designed as the first two years of baccalaureate education, applied associate degrees and certificates that prepare one for specific occupations and career tracks, and many forms of workforce training and apprenticeships done in close cooperation with the businesses who will hire the graduates or who support the advancement of their incumbent employees.  What has become clear in the eyes of nearly all is that high school is no longer the finish line in today’s economy.

Another reality is that the pathway through higher education is no longer a linear sequence confined to the period of four to six years just after high school.   Many young people who started families, who initially settled for minimum-wage or low-paying employment, or who served their country in the military now find themselves ready and eager to take advantage of opportunities that come only from advanced education.  At Thomas Nelson Community College, a remarkable statistic is that 45 percent of our students are 25 years of age or older.  And what powerful learners many of them are, truly appreciative of what education has to offer and highly motivated to do their best!  And then there is the “swirl” of many mature students who were pursuing one field of study but find that either their interests have changed or they must acquire a new set of skills to match the demands of a changing economy.

Anthony Carnevale, noted director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce, has shown that while there can be no individual guarantee of economic success because one has a degree, the chances are much improved.  In the current recovery, the greatest number of regained jobs are going to either those with a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree, or to those with some other postsecondary credential.  Those with only high school are suffering a net loss of jobs.  None of this comes as a surprise when we consider how an economy transformed by globalization, information technology, and increasingly automated processes now requires a workforce with higher levels of both technical skills and broad-based general learning that make one capable of adapting to the challenge of ever-changing circumstances.

As more and more people seek higher education and advanced training at various stages of their lives, both they and the larger society benefit.