Why Do We Want a Degree in Higher Education?

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When planning how to market your institution or increase retention, it’s important to consider why students apply to higher education institutions. I would argue that there are three primary reasons for getting a degree in higher education;

  • salary,
  • parental expectations,
  • and social/societal outcomes.

Reason 1: Salary

The most popularly discussed reason for attending a higher education institution is the reported increase in salary upon graduation. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, employees with a bachelor’s degree earn approximately $580,000 more than employees with a high school diploma.  Furthermore, according to CollegeAtlas.org, employees with degrees have more job opportunities. They attribute this to the fact that employers tend to see college graduates as having a greater ability to think analytically and complete tasks. However, other research shows that a higher salary may no longer be a concrete benefit to a  higher education degree. John Schmitt & Heather Boushey (2012), point out an interesting trend, toward the end of the 1970s, college graduates earned 25% more than a high school graduate, and by the end of the 2000s, this number increased to as much as 60%. Why, then, have the number of 25-34-year-olds with a four-year college degree changed very little than the numbers from the 1980s and 1990s? Schmitt & Boushey identify four potential reasons for this occurrence:

  • Rising tuition costs: As most students and parents can attest to, tuition costs of higher education are through the roof. Student debt is higher than it has ever been, which could be contributing to students' hesitation to complete, or even begin, a college degree.
  • The financial aid shift from grants to student loans: Universities are offering fewer grants and fellowships to students. A rise in tuition would not be so daunting if the likelihood of obtaining grants or fellowships was increased with tuition rates.
  • The uncertainty of completion of the 4-year degree: The number of students who are able to finish a higher education degree in 4 years has significantly decreased. The average time for college completion is 6 years, with 58% of students finishing at that time.
  • Older students have competing responsibilities: Older students with families or job commitments are much less likely to attend college or university. They already have demanding schedules and pursuing a higher education degree may bring the addition of financial stress.

Additionally, contrary to statistics that report higher pay for college graduates, there are a number of college graduates who are earning less than recent high school graduates, (Schmitt & Boushey). Students who are on the fence about whether or not to attend college might be negatively influenced by this.

Reason 2: Students are Expected To

The reason many of us pursue a degree in higher education is because our peers, parents, and employers expect us to. A recent Gallup poll states that parents' views on the importance of college education have increased over the past several decades.

  • 75% of parents in 2010 thought college was very important compared to 58% in 1983.
  • 92% of parents in 2010 believed their child would go to college, compared to 82% in 1995, and 57% in 1982.

This is important when considering students' decisions to go to college, as parental beliefs in higher education are the most important predictor to student academic achievement, (Bogenschneider, 1997).

Reason 3: Social and Societal Outcomes

Outside of money and perceived expectations, why else do we, or should we, consider a higher education? Typically when talking about the benefits of college, we neglect the societal and personal growth benefits. Instead, we get lost in the monetary costs and benefits. However, there are many benefits to attending college. Research tells us that people who attend college are:

  • more likely to live longer,
  • less likely to commit crimes or be incarcerated,
  • more likely to give back to the community,
  • and perform better in the labor market, (OECD, 2013).

From a social perspective, students who go to college have access to more social networks, which tend to be varied and more diversely populated than those who do not attend college (OECD, 2013). This is important not only for individual growth but also career development. Furthermore, our democratic system relies on an educated population in order to function, (Johnston, L.D., 2012). For this system to work, we need critically thinking, informed citizens. We also need citizens with the ability to display empathy, creativity, and collaboration. While some students might be able to pursue these skills without the scaffolding of a university, higher  education institutions help these skills to develop and grow. These are just some of the reasons why students choose to pursue a degree in higher education. As a professional working in higher education, you should always consider why your students are there. In doing so, you will be able to better advise and plan for retention and engagement.  

First-Year Student Engagement


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