The Benefits of Higher Education Go Beyond Just Ourselves

“Yeah, but what’s your backup?” I couldn’t help but smile as I heard those words, my words, come out of my 11-year-old son’s mouth in the back seat of the car. He was responding to 15-year-old Michael as we were driving to an archery activity through the local nonprofit where I work.

Since the time we had picked Michael up, my son Cameron had been firing questions at the older boy. In response to the “what are you going to be when you grow up” question, Michael shared that he would be a famous race car driver. That’s when I heard the question I have asked both of my boys, and many other kids over the years; “OK, what’s your back up?” Michael was confused. I listened to Cameron explain that he too was going to be famous—as a soccer player in Brazil—but that I had told him he needed to have a backup in case he was injured and couldn’t play professional soccer.

At the time, being a veterinarian was his backup plan. I could tell Michael was stumped—no one had ever asked him that question. He had never considered his options. As I learned more about Michael in the coming months, I realized that he probably didn’t see that he really had options. Michael is one of many kids I’ve worked with who struggle to see options beyond what they know in their immediate circumstances.

It is normal of course, to struggle to see beyond what we know.  As kids, we depend on external relationships and experiences to broaden our view of the world. The more perspectives and experiences that are shared with us, the more we want to explore and dream. In my observation, families in which resources like money, transportation, educational and occupational experience, etc… are limited or lacking, the window of exposure to options is narrower. For example, a committed and loving parent who never went to college, and never had any family members who experienced college, is at a disadvantage in being able to present the benefits of higher education to his/her children.

I was born and raised in Fort Collins, Colorado to a family reflective of the highly educated community. In the City of Fort Collins, the 2007 American Community Survey (ACS) data shows that 47.8% of the county’s adult population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher. Another 30.8% have some college education. My own parents both earned master’s degrees long before I was born; my mother in music performance and my father in economics.

Dad pursued his Ph.D. and spent his career in higher education as an economics professor and department administrator at Colorado State University. I was fortunate to have my father tutor me through middle school algebra, my mother to play the piano for me when I auditioned for choirs, and several other familial adults who pursued formal higher education to share what they learned with me. As a kid, I loved going to the campus to visit my dad at work, and remember sitting at my brothers’ graduations celebrating their accomplishments. I don’t really remember having conversations about whether or not I would go to college; I always just knew that I would. It was assumed.

At age 18, just two months out of high school and already accepted into college, I found myself in an unexpected situation. I was pregnant. Many things that I had always just assumed would be a certain way were all of the sudden up in the air. My decisions had a different, more significant impact as my focus quickly shifted toward being a mother. Though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, the decision of whether or not to go ahead with my plans for college was extremely pivotal in my life and in the lives of my children. I think largely because of the example that had been set for me in regard to pursuing higher education, a short year or so later I stood in line at the financial aid building on campus, filling out forms while my mom stood next to me holding my infant son.

Many young women find themselves in the situation I was in, and do not have the expectations or support necessary to pursue a college degree. Similar to Michael, many of these young women do not even allow themselves to believe it’s an option. The implications of that for young, single mothers and their children can be significant. In a community where many people are actually over-educated for the jobs they are in, single mothers without a degree are at a much higher risk of raising their children in poverty.

In Fort Collins, the family type with the highest poverty rate is the single female-headed household with children, with 36 percent of them living in poverty (American Community Survey, 2006-10, 5 year estimate). This represents nearly half of all families with children living in poverty (ACS 2012). Research in poverty trends clearly indicates that children who are raised in poverty are more likely to become adults in poverty raising children of their own. I would never claim that higher education is the solution to the issue poverty in and of itself.  Nor would I argue that one living in poverty cannot succeed and achieve self-sufficiency. However I do propose that educational level attained influences socio-economic status and that socio-economic status is an indicator of “options” for individuals. Therefore, higher education is one tool that can help individuals expand their options. It certainly expanded mine.

I had my second son during my third year of college and I earned my bachelor’s degree in social work in 2003. Divorced shortly after graduation, I worked hard in the social work field to support my young family. I worked directly with youth and their families who were amazing people, who had much to offer and contribute to our community, but who were facing a variety of circumstances that made it difficult for them to navigate, let alone thrive, in this middle class society in which the majority of us operate. So many of them were trapped, either by a perceived or real lack of choice or alternative path. That work experience, along with my parallel struggle to raise my own children on very limited resources, and the ingrained belief that more education was a natural and achievable next step, drove me to pursue my Master of Social Work (MSW) degree in 2006. Later achieving my Licensed Clinical Social Worker designation, I have spent my career working in the field of youth development, specifically in mentoring.

One of the reasons that I believe mentoring is such an effective intervention for youth is because it focuses on building on the potential that already exists within the individual child. We often talk about it as opening a window, or expanding a view. Mentoring efforts build on existing experiences and ideas with more experiences and ideas to add to a menu of possibilities for the youth involved.

Pursuit of higher education can be a similar force for individuals. Higher education fosters awareness of, and movement toward, more options in a very intentional way. It is designed to expose students to varied topics, perspectives, and career options, help them identify their interests, hone their skills, and leave school ready to apply all they’ve learned to live in a meaningful way…and to continue to learn, and look for options.

My time in college and graduate school was a time where so much real learning occurred, where critical thinking became a part of my daily life, and where my mind became full of options and ideas. It has also directly impacted my role as a professional, a community member and as a parent. This is the case for others as well.

Information from many credible sources has been compiled and presented at in Education Pays 2013. The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society, a publication of the Trends in Higher Education Series. This publication cites positive correlations between higher education and areas such as increased income, increased access to health benefits, more active civic engagement, and more parental involvement.

This affirms my belief that though it is not the only option, college can be a critical stepping stone to other options and the potential of it as a reality for all individuals should be fostered. As I reflect now on my own experience, I am so grateful that reality was fostered for me.

Do you think going to college yourself is the best way to demonstrate the benefits of higher education to the next generation?

4 thoughts on “The Benefits of Higher Education Go Beyond Just Ourselves”

  1. Heather

    I enjoyed reading your article. Well done on a solid piece of writing.

    You posed an interesting question: “Do you think going to college yourself is the best way to demonstrate the benefits of higher education to the next generation?

    My response is a definite – no. There are more important things that can be done such as making a positive contribution to resolving burning issues such as access, equity and quality.


    Peter Goudge

    1. Heather Vesgaard

      Thanks for reading and responding Peter. I agree with you. Taking action and making contribution to bettering our world is key and can look many different ways. For me, college provided some of my first exposure to what some of the issues I could be passionate about were and fueled a fire to take action.

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