Michael Dell Aside, You Need That Degree

By 2020, it’s projected that more than 60 percent of the jobs in Georgia will require some form of a college education. Today, that number is only 42 percent.

Higher education has taken its lumps recently. Critics often accuse it of failing to give students “real world” skills that translate to their careers, noting that if a Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates can start a powerhouse company with no degree, why all the fuss about getting a college degree? Furthermore, given the high unemployment rate of college grads and ever-increasing rates of tuition, isn’t it time that we as a nation re-evaluate our attitude towards pursuing higher education?

But how many of those entrepreneurs without degrees, from Gates to Zuckerberg, staff their companies with people who lack college degrees? The backbone of a company is a highly trained workforce. This is precisely why so many companies spend vast amounts of time and money recruiting on college campuses.

Limiting access to American higher education is a recipe for economic failure, not entrepreneurial growth. America is increasingly finding itself in competition with China, India, and Brazil.

Yet in one area, America remains unchallenged as No. 1 in the world — higher education. America’s colleges and universities are the crown jewels of global postsecondary education. At a time when other countries with bustling economies are rushing to develop their postsecondary education systems, it seems curious to consider de-emphasizing the role of America’s prized colleges and universities in the national economy.

The value of a college degree is rising. A recent College Board study found that in 2008 the median salaries of women and men ages 25 to 34 with a college degree were 79 percent and 74 percent higher than peers with only high school diplomas. Moreover, unemployment rates for the college-educated have consistently stayed significantly lower than those who are not college educated.

Campuses offer real skills, as well as intangible benefits. Much of the intangible benefit of college is what makes it so unique. At almost no other point in life can one be exposed for an extended period to a self-contained ecosystem of educated, self-motivated peers who share so much and yet so little in common.

A college education trains a student to think critically and hone her ability to articulate herself. These skills are invaluable, practical and, most importantly, future-proof. As any start-up business owner can tell you, one of the greatest assets to a budding entrepreneur is the ability to understand an exceptional challenge and be able to react nimbly and intelligently to solve it with limited resources and incomplete information. Sharp reasoning and effective problem-solving skills are a must in today’s economy, and these skills are the centerpiece of the American college experience.

All this being said, challenges regarding tuition and calls for more effective ways to prepare students for entrepreneurship and the workforce in general are reasonable concerns for American institutes of higher learning. The idea of an entrepreneurship class which culminates with participation in a national business competition judged by industry leaders, rather than a multiple-choice exam, for example, certainly has merit. Yet, these should be seen as opportunities for improvement, and not barriers to justify dissuading America’s youth from pursuing higher education.

Georgia and America have the opportunity to meet the challenge of today’s global economic challenges and the current recession by doubling down on its world-class education infrastructure or by cutting back and hoping that raw intuition and potential will trump finely honed ingenuity and skill. The latter is a bet that both Georgia and America simply can’t afford to make.

Avi Bhuiyan is a law student at The University of Texas. This piece was originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Image courtesy the McCombs School of Business.


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