By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
It amuses me to tell people that I went to college for 26 years. Their reactions vary from shock to admiration, from pity to surprise.
As a high school sophomore, I learned that the local community college would admit select high school seniors. Acting partly out of youthful arrogance and partly from moxie, I met with an admissions counselor, hoping to be admitted the following year. The advisor never asked my age or my grade as he mechanically pulled my high school transcript. Apparently mathematically challenged, he struggled to convert my quarterly grades into the semester credits to which he was accustomed. “Well,” he eventually concluded, “it sure looks like you have enough credits.”
I completed my first college class before I started my junior year in high school. I took at least one class a semester for the next two years. College offered a challenge that high school lacked. And though I earned high marks in high school, I excelled in my college courses.
As my senior year in high school wound down, classmates began announcing their college plans. My best friend was headed to a private school to study a new field called computer science. It seemed an interesting and promising choice and I decided to follow her there.
However, despite my parents having sacrificed to make weekly deposits into my college fund since the day I was born, the amount they had accumulated was woefully inadequate. This reality, coupled with the frequent media reports of college graduates being under-employed in entry-level positions, led me to a more practical decision. I enrolled in an electronic technical school, where I could quickly learn practical job skills and enter the work force, for a fraction of the cost. Upon graduation, I grabbed the first job that came along: repairing copy machines.
It quickly became apparent that this was not the job for me. My electronic school credential read, “electronic engineering technician,” and though I fancied myself an engineer, prospective employers more correctly viewed me as a technician. To make the career change I wanted, I needed more education. I reapplied to community college and earned a pre-engineering degree.
I transferred to a local university and enrolled in its electrical engineering program. Well before graduation, a job change took me out of state. I established residency there and resumed my education. During this time, I responded to a help wanted ad. The stated salary was three times what I was currently making. I met every qualification and dashed off my resume, fully expecting to be hired. But I was never even interviewed. I later learned that the company was deluged with applications and it summarily rejected every applicant without a four-year college degree. I resolved to never let that happen again.
Now, cynically convinced that a college degree was little more than an attendance certificate, I sought the shortest path to a four-year degree. I found the perfect solution. It was geared for full-time employees who had at least two years of college. By attending evening classes, in an intense one-year program, I could parlay my various college credits with documented experiential learning into a bachelor’s degree. I didn’t care what the degree was in; I just wanted that piece of paper. As the school year wound down, however, I met with a surprise at work. In my annual review, I was told that my management skills had greatly improved and I was rewarded with a substantial raise. Although I had been striving for an arbitrary credential, I inadvertently ended up improving my job skills. I shared this news with my professor, thanking him profusely. In what I thought was unwarranted humility he dismissed my gratitude. “I don’t deserve any credit,” he said matter-of-factly. “All we did was offer you an opportunity; it was up to you to make something of it. It’s what you have inside that made the difference.” It was years before I would fully comprehend what he said.
Now seeing a direct connection between education and earning power, I returned for a second major. What I had previously learned were “soft” skills (interpersonal communication, group dynamics, human nature, and so forth). Now I needed to complement this with course work in accounting, business law, and strategic planning. This major, business administration, would enhance my job skills, making me a better employee.
After a few years, missing the elixir of education and feeling inadequate as a manager, I began considering a master’s degree. Again, I found a program geared for the non-traditional student. Their offer was compelling, but even more intriguing was that for an additional fee, in advance, I could enroll in a joint masters/doctorate program. And I did. I anticipated that the master’s degree would make me complete as a manager, but I viewed the doctorate more as a personal milestone. My master’s degree was completed as planned and I immediately began working on the doctorate, which I had two years to complete. Already worn down by the intensity of the master’s, I soon regretted committing to the doctoral program. But stubbornness prevailed and I plodded on, meeting the requirements only a few months before the deadline. I was 42; it was 26 years since I had gotten a jumpstart on college at age 16. There were some diversions along the way, job changes, relocations and even a few breaks, but for the majority of that time, I was attending classes – somewhere.
So for me, college has meant many things: a challenge, a means to a job, help with a career change, an attendance certificate, an avenue to a better salary, enhancer of job skills, and management training. College can be many things depending on what you need and what you want to accomplish, but it is not a cure-all.
As a consultant, I do weeklong call center audits. I begin the week with an overview of the client’s company and then drill down to uncover weaknesses and opportunities. In doing so, a distressing pattern has emerged. On about the third day, I often find myself in a follow-up meeting with the person who manages the call center. That person’s common concern is presented in different ways and with various levels of emotion, but it always boils down to the same sentiment: “I feel inadequate as a manager. I think I need a college degree.”
It breaks my heart when I hear this. These are successful, dynamic women, who have started at entry-level positions and through hard work, dedication, and a talent for doing what’s nearly impossible, have risen to significant positions. These are individuals who oversee the majority of their organization’s work force, control about half of the expenses (primarily labor costs), and maintain virtually all of the incoming cash flow, yet they still feel inadequate. They believe that a degree will make everything right. This always catches me by surprise because they conduct their work with such great aplomb, confidence, and success. I am never sure what to say, but next time I will be ready.
I will say, “Yes, college can help you. If you have the opportunity to go and are willing to make the sacrifices of time and money, while putting much of your life on hold, then do it. It will make you a better manager. But it is not a panacea. There will still be times when you will feel overwhelmed or inadequate or unprepared. Most managers have these feelings. But a formal education isn’t everything.
While my educational choices have, in part, enabled me to get to where I am today, I know that had I gone down a different path, the result would be no less meaningful, because as my college professor said, “It’s what you have inside that makes the difference.”
What if you don’t already have a career? These comments about college are strictly for those who have an established career. For the recent high school graduate and those just starting out or without a career path, I always recommend college, provided they can handle the workload. Being a traditional student and going to school full-time allows you to get your degree in the shortest time, but it is not financially possible for everyone. In this case, as for me, you can intersperse education with vocation. Although this approach takes longer, it enhances the experience as your education is magnified by your work and your work is complemented by your education.
What if you have no idea what to study? If this is the case, be sure and pursue marketable job skills (don’t focus on skills that will maximize earning potential, but rather on what will maximize your enjoyment of life – which is not money.) For those who are analytical thinkers, business and computers are good pursuits; for creative minds, consider marketing or graphic arts. And remember, many college graduates don’t end up working in the field they studied, but rather they use their education as an entry-point to the work force. Once you have successfully proven yourself in full-time employment, work history generally becomes more important than your degree — as long as you have it.
So, go to college, study hard, make the most of the opportunity that you are given, and remember, it’s what’s inside that makes the difference.