Mike Gemmell is the founder and president of Restore Our American Republic (ROAR). Prior to founding ROAR, he was a geologist specializing in groundwater resource development, a technical writer, and a freelance writer addressing environmental and other cultural issues. For more information on his professional background please see: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelmgemmell.
The Value of a Higher Education
If you are pursuing a higher education, e.g., college and professional schools after college, at some point you may begin to wonder if it is worth all the long hours of study and work. The purpose of this essay is to give you some specifics on what that education will give you, and hopefully convince you that the effort is worth it from the aspect of professional satisfaction, monetary compensation, and personal growth. If you suspect these items are related, you are absolutely correct. The primary means that higher education helps you obtain these values is by:
- developing a better capacity for independent thinking
- broadening and deepening your intellectual content
The Contrast Between a High school and College Education
The following is a rough comparison between the level of independent thought typically developed at the high school versus the college level:
High school– Minimal writing. Students expected to absorb ideas but not question too much. Students mostly memorize material for tests. Independent research projects that student develops from concept through execution comparatively rare.
College– Significantly more writing especially in the humanities. Students expected to debate more, Some classes may build on other previous coursework such as engineering which builds on math and physics. The student learns to think independently across a broad range of subjects and in so doing broadens and deepens existing knowledge. Many more possibilities for independent projects such as a senior thesis.
Of course the above are generalizations, and exceptional students in exceptional high schools will blur the boundaries between the level of independent thought that is generally developed at high school versus the college level.
How does having a higher education translate to greater income?
Education, if effectively rendered, should systematically increase the student’s independent thinking ability, and this is something employers crave more than any specific skill set. Listen to the words of a top executive from a car manufacturer at a conference on education:
Although the executive is referring to high school, the deeper meaning is that no matter what level of your education, high school, trade school, college, or graduate school, etc. independent thinking ability is what employers are paying for. If someone entering the work force has it, they can be trained on specific job skills, and when things change, as they often do in today’s world, they will have the capacity to adapt to the change in a productive manner.
Carly Fiorina, former chief executive officer of Hewlett Packard (1999-2005) is an outstanding example of this principle put into practice. In her recently published memoir2, Fiorina discusses the value of her course work pursuing a dual major of history and philosophy. Her major entailed enormous amounts of reading. Fiorina’s study method was to write successive draft summaries of her assignments, each time distilling the arguments down to their barest essentials. This exercise in critical thinking, expressed through the act of writing, served her well in her years as a business executive by helping to analyze problems and to quickly get to whatever the heart of the issue was.
For specific training for those with a high school education, as the car executive above noted, the companies will often train employees in specific skills. For those with a college education, that additional education often comes in the form of MBA programs as it did with Fiorina.
Employers do want people with the capacity to think independently and the higher the level of education, the greater your income earning potential will be. Statistics from a U.S. Census Bureau report3 bear this out. Average yearly earnings for high school graduates are $25,900, college graduates $45,400, and for workers with professional degrees such as doctors and lawyers, $99,500.
How does Higher Education translate to greater professional satisfaction?
But what about professional satisfaction; will higher education help with that as well? In a word: absolutely. Professional satisfaction for someone with a higher education largely entails tackling progressively more difficult assignments and the feeling one gets by overcoming the obstacles entailed in those assignments.
In my pre-writer professional life, I worked as a geologist in the field of groundwater contamination / water resource development. On one particular job, I was working primarily in an administrative role reviewing budgets and work proposals. It was not my job to evaluate their technical feasibility. Nevertheless, on two separate proposals that came across my desk it became apparent to me that the right hand of the company I was working for (e.g., engineering personnel) did not properly understand what the left hand (e.g., investigative personnel) was doing, and vice versa. Seeing this, I realized that if we didn’t throw out both proposals and start fresh, we were going to fall flat on our face with our Fortune 500 client. By using the analytical skills gained during my years in higher education, I was able to write more clearly abut the transition from the investigative to the remediation stage of our project and thereby get our project team back on track. In the process I was able to secure myself a 20% raise at evaluation time.
One note of caution for the technically minded such as engineers and scientists: In some cases higher education means developing greater breadth such as is possible in the humanities. In others such as engineering and science, it means achieving advanced quantitative problem solving skills. If the latter is your choice, remember after you leave you environment of higher education you will be in a much more social environment than what students typically are exposed to in science and engineering. Don’t forget to develop your communication and “people” skills during your years in higher education, as well as in the early years of your chosen career as well.
On projects of any complexity you will come into contact with people with a variety of perspectives such as sales, marketing, management, and technical personnel. Career advancement is not only dependent on having superior skills in quantitative problem solving but also includes being able to write proposals, reports, and communicate effectively in written and verbal form with many people. Effective networking is a good way to develop some of those skills (link to The Art of Networking essay). Also, I strongly recommend taking some humanities courses that make you write essays. My father, a retired electrical engineer, once said to me that engineers were the worst writers in the world. The good news is if you are pursuing an engineering career, and you can stretch yourself to gain some writing skills, you will find those skills greatly in demand in the writing of reports and proposals which are a very large part of many business environments.
How does Higher Education translate to greater personal growth?
Greater income and greater professional satisfaction often lead to greater personal growth as well. By personal growth I mean developing in areas that are not directly related to your profession. A prime ingredient in the desire for personal growth is self confidence in your ability to learn things about yourself and the world around you. Few things improve self confidence as much as using your thinking capacity to tackle problems on an everyday basis in your chosen profession.
The pursuit of non-professional activities can also feed back into your professional life. A friend of mine insists that his recreation time spent pursuing surf fishing makes him a better math teacher. His relaxation hours allow his mind to be refreshed. When he heads back to math issues his concentration improves accordingly.
Confident people are not afraid to reach out to others outside their sphere of knowledge. Perspectives from a large number of people will help you grow personally and professionally.
Higher education builds stronger, more independent minds which are a highly prized commodity in the business world. More independent minds are a prerequisite for career advancement and build self confidence that can carry over into personal growth as well.
- quoted in: The Well Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer, 1999, p. 569.
- Tough Choices: A Memoir, Carly Fiorina, 2006.
- S. Census Bureau report: The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings , 2002.