Education Opinion

New Consideration in Choosing a College

By Walt Gardner — September 24, 2010 2 min read
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High school seniors who plan to attend a four-year college or university may want to rethink their choices if getting a job is their primary concern. The Wall Street Journal published the results of its survey of top corporate recruiters in a front-page story on Sept. 13 (“Penn State Tops Recruiter Rankings”). It found that they preferred graduates of state universities over the Ivies and elite liberal arts colleges.

Recruiters said that graduates of top public universities possess the practical skills that their corporate employers are seeking. As a result, prospective students are being advised by their counselors to ask which companies recruit on campus before deciding to apply. (The Journal emphasized that certain majors from marquee-name schools still are coveted by recruiters.)

Nevertheless, the findings come as a surprise to a generation which has been led to believe that the Ivies and their equivalents automatically open the door to lucrative jobs. In today’s recession, however, that notion needs to be reexamined. When students assume upwards of $200,000 in debt to earn a degree from a private college or university, they understandably want to know if the investment was worthwhile. If the only basis for answering that question is the salary they can earn immediately after commencement, then state universities become far more appealing.

But if the value of a sheepskin is more than the price it can fetch the holder in a highly competitive job market, the Journal’s findings are less relevant. Practical skills, which form the basis for training, are not the same as academic knowledge, which forms the basis for an education. Training and education can overlap, but they are not interchangeable. The former deals with techniques, while the latter deals with concepts. Since no one knows exactly what the future holds for the economy, perhaps the wisest preparation is a liberal arts education because it is intended to produce well-rounded graduates able to adapt to changing conditions.

I realize that making this distinction will likely be seen as a luxury. After all, debt has always been a heavy burden to carry. But in past decades when it was less onerous, it was considered prudent. Now, however, going to college may be a bad decision for some. Accounting and engineering majors probably will see a good return on their investment, but liberal arts majors face entirely different immediate prospects. Yet I wouldn’t write off the latter. Real education is priceless.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.