The Truth about College
By Peter L DeHaan
amuses me to tell people that I went to college for 26 years.
Their reactions vary from shock to admiration, from pity to
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 school's
quarterly grades into the semester credits to which he was accustomed.
“Well,” he eventually concluded, “it sure looks like you
have enough credits.”
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.
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.
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 the community college and earned a pre-engineering degree.
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.
being 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.
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
- and more marketable - employee.
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 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.
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, an 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.
call center consultant, I would do weeklong business audits.
I would 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.”
breaks my heart when I hear this. These were
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
were 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.
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 and a formal education won't make them go
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.”
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 one to get
a degree in the shortest time, but it is not financially possible for
everyone. In this case, as for me, education can be
interspersed with vocation. Although this approach
takes longer, it enhances the experience as education is magnified by
work and work is complemented by education.
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, most 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
to college, study hard, make the most of the opportunity that you are
given, but remember, it’s what's inside that makes the difference.
Read other articles
by Peter DeHaan,
sign up for Peter DeHaan's newsletter to receive
weekly writing tips and information, or visit his website:
[Permission is granted to
reprint or reuse this article, provided credit is given to the author and the
above contact information is included. Notify
and a provide copy or link.]