In a world of rising tuition costs and an increasingly competitive job market, folks are being forced to evaluate closely the benefit of continuing to the next level of their formal education, whatever that may look like.
It is not uncommon to hear people asking each other things like “well do you think it’s worth pursuing your licensure?” “Was getting your master’s degree just a waste of money?” “Do you use your degree?” The answers to these questions differ based on many variables such as field of study and employment, the community in which the conversation is taking place, long-term financial and career goals, etc…
There are plenty of resources available to help one determine the financial part of this debate. For example, there are studies quoting employment and earnings statistics by education level, and there are heated debates between the proponents of the U.S. education system and those who think it is failing. I read several of these resources as I was thinking about this article, and encourage others to explore the topics—really interesting stuff. The most interesting part of the discussion to me, though, is in regard to the definition of “benefit” from a personal growth perspective. Why do we pursue higher education? Is it all about money and career advancement? Or, is it also about personal growth and potential to enhance social contribution?
These are personal questions, and again, they will have different answers depending on the individual. I think even in my own household my husband and I might answer differently when asked about the “value” of our earned graduate degrees. Both of us, by the way, earned graduate degrees from Colorado State University as well as subsequent licensure, certification(s) in our own fields of study—me in social work and he in business administration. We’ve spent a chunk of money, time, sweat, and tears on this topic…very little blood, fortunately. I’m not one to argue that one answer or another is correct in this type of discussion, but I do enjoy reflecting on my own experience to inform a certain opinion. As I have the opportunity to interact with a wide range of people involved in education at different levels on a daily basis, this is a topic that is often top of mind.
Each fall at the nonprofit where I work, we enjoy bringing on a slew of interns—both graduate and undergraduate students—to support our youth mentoring programs. We watch these interns grow in their skills in a given area of study, and celebrate individual successes within a common vein. We also see some challenges in common that present themselves, and we have learned some things about supporting them as they grow. It is not uncommon for an intern to tell us they want to quit school, or for a critical relationship in their life to fall apart during their graduate schooling. Several of them have battled physical illness or mental health challenges during this time. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I believe these interns are being stretched and challenged in every aspect of their lives; almost like a developmental stage that occurs regardless of age. I remember one of my own professors telling me “life just seems to REALLY happen for folks during grad school.” It can be one of the most taxing time periods of life, and yet, one of the most rewarding as well. So often, it’s like watching a flower bloom. I remember that same experience, how painful some parts of it were, and how amazing other parts were.
I would never impose the viewpoint that graduate school is the only way to achieve this type of growth. The world is a classroom, after all, and many people are good at seeking out opportunities to learn and grow. For me though, my time earning my master’s degree offered me a structured opportunity to intentionally learn. This learning extended beyond the classroom and beyond my field of study—in many ways, the classroom was the easy part. Sure, during my course of study I read articles I might not have otherwise read, was forced to think about topics that might have been easier to avoid, and learned how to professionally articulate my opinions in papers and presentations. Beyond that though, I was allowed into a world of varied perspectives and experiences way beyond what I had previously known. Through group projects and late-night study sessions, I got to know people I may have never have pursued knowing at that point in my life. Due to these relationships, born out of the structure of an assignment, I was given the opportunity to inform my worldview; to pick and choose perspectives that resonated with me, to appreciate ones that didn’t, and incorporate (or not) philosophies and practices into the way I interacted with the world around me. The way I raised my children, the way I spent my money, the decisions I made about where to put my passions and my efforts were all influenced by my educational experience.
I remember one project in particular; I (a young, single mother of two) was assigned to a group with a male war veteran twice my age, a grandmother who went back to school after raising her kids and getting them started on raising their own, two 22-year-old young ladies fresh out of undergrad living with a sorority, and a man in his late twenties navigating grad school with a severe physical disability. If you think the growth and learning that occurred in that group came through the subject matter we were studying or the specific project we were working on, think again. What an amazing group that was, and how fortunate I will forever be to have known them!
It’s been a long time since I was a student. Through our interns, though, I get a glimpse of the ways in which it seems opportunities for personal growth are enhanced and hindered. I think about what it might be like to relive my master of social work experience now, likely paying significantly more money, having several years of work experience under my belt, perhaps taking advantage of distance learning or an online program, maybe studying abroad…so many options! Regardless of the setup, I believe the value I found the first time around would still be there. Value can be hard to measure depending upon the parameters you use. For me, my master’s degree is truly invaluable by all measures. I value it beyond my student loan debt (yes I have plenty), it is worth more to me than what I earn (though I do better financially in my field than I could without it), and I am worth more because of it (as a societal contributor and as an individual). For all of these reasons, my education was a bargain.
What variables do you consider the most important when determining the value of an education? Let us know in the comments below!