Maximize Your Higher Education Return

Like me, you may have noticed many headlines questioning the ultimate value of higher education lately. The cost of higher education in terms of time and money coupled with the reduced availability of jobs to make the effort “worth it” has put attending college on the hot seat.

Because obtaining a degree beyond high school is the defining criteria of a first generation professional (FGP), the question of higher education’s value is a critical topic. People, like myself, who identify with being a FGP, know that the college experience opened us up to a whole new world of possibilities for our life and prepared us for work that no one in our family had ever known or done before.

For me, the greatest dream of my childhood was to go to college and it’s a dream whose attainment has pulled my own family forward. I have been told and have seen how my achievement as a college graduate allowed other family members to know that they could enroll for advanced education, increase their knowledge and awareness, and pursue career paths new to our family.

I haven’t actually seen my undergraduate diploma since I graduated in 1999. I was given a pocket size version of my diploma. So, I gave my large size formal diploma to my grandmother, who never finished high school, because I knew how much it meant to her. So, without a doubt, higher education has brought a great deal of benefit and inspiration to my life and my loved ones.

I have noticed that those who are questioning the value of higher education are not the first in their family to experience the college environment. Their progenitors have experienced the process of obtaining increased knowledge via a college education and taking that new awareness and experience out into the world to create “professional” career paths.

When you grow up in a household where you see professional work modeled or parents involved in entrepreneurship, I believe that it is much more likely that you’ll have more awareness and preparation for college and the world of work after it. You’ll also possibly have greater expectations about what college is “supposed” to do for you.

The current conversation about the state and cost of higher education is an important one to have. Making higher education as affordable as possible so that we are not paying off debt for the rest of our lives is crucial. Recognizing that the higher education environment needs to be more than a one size fits all model is significant too.

Again, an FGP will most likely have a different set of expectations, awareness, and skills than someone who’s family is able to provide them with guidance and support with getting into college and optimizing their time within the higher education environment.

Whether you identify with being a first generation professional or not, each of us who have the privilege of entering an environment of advanced education has a responsibility to put effort toward maximizing the return on the investment of our (or our parent’s) time and money.

Here are a few ideas on this subject:

  • Recognize Higher Education’s Blind-spots and Weaknesses
    • A major weakness of higher education that I have experienced was a lack of guidance on how to apply and leverage my education beyond simply getting a “job” with an employer after college. In a recession, when jobs are more scarce, having entrepreneurial, sales, and marketing skills can help you better weather a contracted job market.
    • For others, a huge blind-spot involved the fact that they got degrees that they never really used in the work they do every day.
    • Still for others, the lack of support and guidance for determining if a college or their degree was a match for them resulted in a protracted time in college, switching colleges, and switching majors several times.

These three situations and several others are valid points of contention with higher education. Additionally, some of these blind-spots and weaknesses are present at undergraduate and graduate levels.

What’s beautiful is that simply identifying the potential blind-spots and weaknesses of the current state of higher education or the school that you attend, will reveal steps that you can take to maximize your return on investment in your advanced education.

While you’re in school there are countless proactive steps you can take including:

  • Develop your entrepreneurial, sales, marketing, and networking skills, if you want to prepare yourself to better navigate a contracted job market
    • Join business-building focused groups on campus
    • Become a member of professional organizations: take advantage of the student discounts, interview working professionals to find out if the degree and the work you want to ultimately experience is truly a match or a good enough match.
    • Build some inspiring mentoring relationships with your professors and professionals in your field
    • Hone your public speaking skills, etc.
  • Explore adding a new major or minor to maximize your knowledge, skills, and awareness before you finish college
    I attended one of the most prestigious school in the world, Carnegie Mellon University. At the time of starting my college studies, the business school that I attended was the third ranked undergraduate business school in the nation. Believe it or not, by the end of my freshman year, I was bored out of my mind! 

    As a result, I took a morning and paged through the entire university course catalog, which was a very large and heavy bound book back then. In the process, I discovered a major “Information and Decision Systems,” went to speak with the directors of that program, and enrolled within the week. Taking on a double major was exactly what I needed. Immersing myself in the world of data and computer science literally rewired my brain.

  • Decide how much time YOU need and want to spend on college
    • As a first generation professional, I absolutely needed those four years. Not only did my mind develop exponentially due to being in an enriched learning environment, the relationships that I formed with students from around the world radically enlarged my outlook on life. If I had the perspective then that I have now, I would have taken more steps to truly ring out every bit of value that I could have gotten from my time in college, including possibly participating in a study abroad program. I had a fabulous experience during undergrad and I now see how that time could have been used to better prepare myself for the professional path.
    • For others, creating an individualized program to expedite or extend their time in college might be a path that works better.

Whether the four year plan or a shorter or longer time span suits you, be sure to enjoy thoroughly the time of being around a large community of your peers because the “real world” can change everything.

On reflection, as a young undergrad, I had a narrow view of what I could create for myself during college. While, I do agree that higher education is in need of some updates and possible overhauls, ultimately, each college attendee is in charge of maximizing the value that higher education brings to her or his life.  So, get creative!

Please post any other ideas or actions that you are using or used to maximize your return on higher education. We would love to hear your thoughts!

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