By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD
It amuses me to tell people I went to college for 40 years. Their reactions vary from shock to admiration, from pity to surprise.
As a high school sophomore, I learned the local community college would admit selecting high school seniors. Acting partly out of youthful arrogance and partly from moxie, I met with an admissions counselor, hoping to be admitted the following year. The advisor never asked my age or my grade as he mechanically pulled my high school transcript. Mathematically challenged, he struggled to convert my school’s quarterly grades into the semester credits he was accustomed to. “Well,” he concluded, “it sure looks like you have enough credits.”
I completed my first college class before I started my junior year in high school. I took at least one class a semester for the next two years. The college offered a challenge that high school lacked. Though I earned high marks in high school, I excelled in my college courses.
As my senior year in high school wound down, classmates announced their college plans. My best friend was headed to a private school to study a new field called computer science. It seemed an interesting and promising choice, and I decided to follow her there. However, despite my parents having sacrificed to make weekly deposits into my college fund since the day I was born, the amount they accumulated fell short. This reality, coupled with frequent media reports of college graduates being under-employed in entry-level positions, led me to a more practical decision. I enrolled in electronic technical school where I could quickly learn practical job skills and enter the work force at a fraction of the cost. Upon graduation, I grabbed the first job that came along: repairing copy machines.
Pursue a Practical Education
It quickly became apparent this was not the job for me. My electronic school credential read, “electronic engineering technician,” and though I fancied myself an engineer, prospective employers viewed me as a technician. To make the career change I wanted, I needed more education. I reapplied to the community college and earned a pre-engineering degree.
I transferred to a local university and enrolled in its electrical engineering program. Well before graduation, a job change took me out of state. I established residency there and resumed my education. During this time, I responded to a help wanted ad. The stated salary was three times what I currently made. I met every qualification and dashed off my resume, fully expecting to be hired. But they didn’t even interview me. I later learned the company was deluged with applications, and it summarily rejected every applicant without a four-year college degree. I resolved to never let that happen again.
A College Degree Can Be More Than an Attendance Certificate
Now being cynically convinced that a college degree was little more than an attendance certificate, I sought the shortest path to a four-year degree. I found the perfect solution. It was geared for full-time employees who had at least two years of college. By attending evening classes, in an intense one-year program, I could parlay my various college credits with documented experiential learning into a bachelor’s degree. I didn’t care what the degree was in; I just wanted that piece of paper. As the school year wound down, however, I met with a surprise at work. In my annual review, my boss told me that my management skills had greatly improved. He rewarded me with a substantial raise. Although I had been striving for an arbitrary credential, I inadvertently ended up improving my job skills.
I shared this news with my professor, thanking him profusely. In what seemed unwarranted humility he dismissed my gratitude. “I don’t deserve any credit,” he said matter-of-factly. “All we did was offer you an opportunity; it was up to you to make something of it. It’s what you have inside that made the difference.” It was years before I would fully comprehend this.
Now seeing a direct connection between education and earning power, I returned for a second major. What I had previously learned were “soft” skills (interpersonal communication, group dynamics, human resources, and so forth). Now I needed to complement this with course work in accounting, business law, and strategic planning. This major, business administration, would enhance my job skills, making me a better and more marketable employee.
A Masters and a Doctorate
After a few years, missing the elixir of education and feeling inadequate as a manager, I began considering a master’s degree. Again, I found a program geared for non-traditional students. Their offer was compelling, but even more intriguing was that I could enroll in a joint masters/doctorate program. I did. I anticipated the master’s degree would make me complete as a manager, but I viewed the doctorate more as a personal milestone.
After completing my master’s degree as planned, I immediately began working on the doctorate, which I had two years to complete. Already worn down by the intensity of the master’s, I soon regretted committing to the doctoral program. But stubbornness prevailed and I plodded on, meeting the requirements only a few months before the deadline. I was 42; it was 26 years since I had gotten a jump start on college at age 16. There were some diversions along the way, job changes, relocations, and even a few breaks, but for the majority of that time, I was attending classes—somewhere.
A Second Doctorate
Fast forward a few more years. I felt a prompting to return to school once again, this time for personal edification, picking a Bible college – again distance learning. I applied for a second doctorate but they didn’t accept me. Not caring about the credential, but the learning opportunity, I accepted placement in their master’s program. However, a couple of classes into it, during a routine call to the school, I learned they had undergone a change in how they evaluate transfer credits. They bumped me up to their “second doctorate” program, which for me actually required fewer classes than the master’s program I was in. I switched. By graduation, I had spent nearly 40 years in college. And that will be enough college for me – unless I want to return to teach.
The college has meant many things to me: a challenge, a means to a job, help with a career change, an attendance certificate, an avenue to a better salary, an enhancer of job skills, management training, and personal edification. College can be many things depending on what we need and what we want to accomplish, but it is not a cure-all.
When I worked as a call center consultant, I would do week-long business audits. I would begin the week with an overview of the client’s company and then drill down to uncover weaknesses and opportunities. In doing so, a distressing pattern emerged. On about the third day, I would often find myself in a follow-up meeting with the person who manages the call center. They share their common concern in different ways and with various levels of emotion, but it always boiled down to the same sentiment: “I feel inadequate as a manager. I think I need a college degree.”
This broke my heart. I was never sure what to say.
Do You Feel You Need a College Degree?
These were successful, dynamic women, who started at entry-level positions and through hard work, dedication, and a talent for doing what’s nearly impossible, rose to significant positions. These individuals oversaw the majority of their organization’s workforce, controlled about half of its expenses (primarily labor costs), and maintained virtually all of the company revenue, yet they still felt inadequate. They believed a degree would make everything right. This always caught me by surprise because they conducted their work with such great aplomb, confidence, and success.
Here’s what I should have told them: “Yes, college can help you. If you have the opportunity to go and are willing to make the sacrifices of time and money, while putting much of your life on hold, then do it. It will make you a better manager. But it is not a panacea. There will still be times when you will feel overwhelmed, inadequate, or unprepared at work. Most managers have these feelings and a formal education won’t make them go away.”
While my educational choices have, in part, enabled me to get to where I am today, I know that had I gone down a different path, the result would be no less meaningful, because as my college professor said, “It’s what you have inside that makes the difference.”
What If You Don’t Already Have a Career?
These comments about college are strictly for those who have an established career. For the recent high school graduate and those just starting out or without a career path, I always recommend college, provided they can handle the workload. Being a traditional student and going to school full-time allows one to get a degree in the shortest time, but it is not financially possible for everyone. In this case, as for me, intersperse education with vocation. Although this approach takes longer, it enhances the experience as education is magnified by work, and work is complemented by education.
What If You Have No Idea What to Study?
If this is the case, be sure to pursue marketable job skills. Don’t focus on skills that will maximize earning potential. Instead, look at what will maximize your enjoyment of life—which is not money. For those who are analytical thinkers, business and computers are good pursuits; for creative minds, consider marketing or graphic arts.
And remember, most college graduates don’t end up working in the field they studied. Instead, they use their education as an entry-point to the workforce. Once you have successfully proven yourself in full-time employment, work history generally becomes more important than your degree—as long as you have it.
So, if you go to college, study hard, make the most of the opportunity that you are given. Just remember, it’s what’s inside that makes the difference.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, shares his lifetime of business experience and personal insights with others through his books and blogs to encourage, inspire, and occasionally entertain.