It is rare today to read or hear the news without encountering a story on higher education, and in particular, one that questions its very value. It seems higher education, especially graduate school, is being scrutinized in ways it hasn’t encountered in the past, when it seemed to be the undisputed ticket to a better future. Two key reasons for all this scrutiny are, of course, the rising cost of tuition and concerns about student debt—by no means minor issues. However, as someone who has devoted their career to higher education and fully understands its import in not only educating minds, but also in opening up a world of possibilities, shaping character, and creating lifetime networks, I firmly believe that education cannot only stand up to this scrutiny, but win the fight.
After over thirty years in higher education, I recently left Washington, D.C. with my family and moved to California to take a position with the Claremont Colleges as the Vice Provost for Student Enrollment / Dean of Students at Claremont Graduate University. In my almost two years here, I have learned a lot about graduate student life and graduate student expectations. I have been greatly impressed with the Claremont Colleges and the students I encounter on my own CGU campus; their commitment is extraordinary. I am equally impressed with the exceptionally high standards of our nationally renowned faculty and the devotion of our staff to the success of our students. Although I am obviously biased toward CGU, I hope that the thoughts I wish to share about graduate school in general will resonate with you as you make plans for further education. For I am certain that some of you are asking: Is it a worthwhile investment to pay for graduate education? Will your costs in time and money make a substantive difference in your career and in your quality of life?
I would like to point out—regardless of where you choose to attend a graduate program—that not until recently was the value of education ever questioned to the extent that it is today. It was always understood that open, educated minds propelled this world forward. Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, once said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Think back, have you yourself ever questioned the need for your undergraduate degree? You may not have decided on a specific career or even a specific major right out of high school, but you probably did not find anyone who advised you against “going to college.” In fact, you may have not been ready or family circumstances may have created financial pressure for the moment, but you knew in the long run that education was in your future.
As is the case with any investment, you need to think long term. How many careers will I have? How many years will I be working? These are questions you probably should be asking yourself. We understand that the current economic realities create lots of uncertainty: You have witnessed and experienced economic meltdown, historically high unemployment, increased competition from globalization, volatile financial markets, and a technology environment which will create career paths not to be imagined today.
Now, consider this: If, in this mix of issues, fewer prospective students choose to embark upon graduate study, then those who do will move themselves ahead of the “crowd.” If more students choose to pursue graduate credentials, those without them will surely fall behind. I only want to be a strong advocate for more education and training than less, regardless of which curriculum you choose or which school suits you best. Your costs in time and money will be amortized over a lifetime, and your investment will return rich dividends, as those investments have since Harvard was founded in 1636. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today’s findings continue to support the statement that education pays off in both higher earnings and lower unemployment, with the average person who earns a master’s, doctoral, or professional degree making up to one million dollars more in a lifetime than a person who earns solely a bachelor’s degree.
You may also be asking, “How will I handle the challenges of graduate school?” And it’s true, graduate work is often stressful, as students balance study and research with employment and family life. (That’s your own family we’re talking about, not the family that raised you!) You may even be spending your own money or acquiring debt. Taken together, that’s a lot on anyone’s plate, and often the prospect of this “balancing act” is intimidating to many as graduate school looms on the horizon. Once again, I feel certain that the sacrifices are worth it. At the right school or program, your “balancing act” will be supported and must be supported by faculty advisers, dissertation committees, student services staff, and university leadership—all working together with a collective focus on the student’s ultimate success, your success.
What you make of your future is up to you … how hard you are willing to work, what risks you are willing to take, what tough choices you will make. For some of you, graduate school is the answer. Further education can refine your skill set, enhance your thinking process, focus your energy, and lead you into areas currently unknown or imagined. You will be stronger, smarter, better prepared, and ready to be a part of the change you wish to see in this world. And that’s not a bad return on any investment.