What’s the Value of Continuing Education? It Depends on Your Priorities

We all have different reasons for going back to school. For some people, it’s all about getting a qualification to improve their career prospects, or to enable a pre-planned job switch. In these cases, the benefits of higher education are conveniently clear-cut: future professional and financial rewards in exchange for your current studies.

There are a number of people, however, who have a different perspective on the value of a degree, studying exclusively for the love of a subject. This is particularly prevalent at the graduate level, where there exists a figurative smorgasbord of obscure degree offerings that don’t particularly translate to a specific job.

In today’s economic climate, it’s easy to feel the pressure to study something “useful,” with an obvious career waiting at the end. Studying subjects just because you love them can be seen as self-indulgent, due to an increasing awareness of employers’ preference for graduates with sector-specific education.

This affects subjects in liberal arts the most. A recent article in The Columbus Dispatch quoted governors from three different states questioning the validity of such degrees in terms of employment needs. The Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, claimed that there should be a focus on high-demand professions. By this reasoning, the purpose of higher education is solely to learn specific skills that can get you hired at the end.

On the other hand, following your passion, even if the line that connects it to the job market is a bit fuzzy, can still lead to plenty of opportunities. The broader value of education is important to many employers, as a 2013 survey  suggests. The survey polled 318 business leaders, 93% of whom said that a “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems” mattered more than the degree title itself. If you plan on going back to school to study a subject in the humanities, social sciences or other areas of liberal arts, you’re likely to learn those kinds of skills.

Ultimately, if you’re investing your time and money in higher education, it’s reasonable to put some thought into the kind of career that might be waiting at the other end. But the value of education shouldn’t solely defined by the job market. Every degree provides students with valuable skills of some kind, it just might take some more creativity on your part to leverage those skills and demonstrate them to potential employers. Try looking up graduates who have already completed a program in your field to find out what they do now. Take inspiration from the careers of people with similar interests to yours. The value of a degree is subjective to the person earning it. It can be worth the endeavor to pursue your passion, it just depends on where your priorities lie, and how you think you can transfer the skills that you learn.

Need some help thinking through your priorities as you consider going back to school? Use this free worksheet as a guide in your decision-making process.

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