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What Can a College Degree Do for You?

How essential is a degree to professional success? Is it just a mile marker or much more? Dr. Bennett E. McClellan weighs in on the question. Read more below.
BY Dr. Bennett E. McClellan |   27-10-2015
“To graduate or not to graduate – that is the question”

Every year, millions of students across India, and around the world in fact, vie for admission to universities. Students who obtain university seats typically feel that they have the rest of their years settled.  Those who do not, often feel they have no hope for success in life.  Both impressions are absolutely wrong.

Granted, there are certain things that a university degree can do for you.  There are also things that a university degree cannot do for you.   For example, if you are a naturally talented musician, attending the right music school can help you hone your talent.  But, if you lack an innate musicality, no university in the world can make you into a competent musician.

Similarly, if you have a knack for business, and an interest in making money, attending the Harvard Business School can help you get the knowledge and contacts you need to pursue a career in business.  But, even an MBA from Harvard will not assure your success if you do not work hard, consistently make good decisions, and stick to the goal of making money.

It takes a lot of effort to get into a good college.  It takes even more effort to make use of a degree once earned.  Today, a degree from the best university cannot guarantee you a job.  This principle holds true regardless of whether the degree granting institution is an IIT or MIT.   So why should anybody pursue a college degree?

Question: How might a college degree help or hinder your success in life?

To answer that question, you first need to decide how you define “success.”  There are many paths to personal success.  Almost any path you choose will work, as long as you first define what success means for you.

If you define “success” as enabling you to pursue a specific profession, then a college degree represents your admission ticket.  For example, if you want a job with the Indian Administrative Service, you had better get that degree!  If you want to become a medical doctor, lawyer, or engineering chief, you had better get that degree!  For many professions, earning a BA in a qualifying subject is the only way to get in the door.

If you define “success” as “making a lot of money” there is good evidence that spending three or four years in college might delay your success.  Famous gazillionaires who dropped out of college include Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zukerberg! But don’t feel bad for them.  Plenty of universities are happy to offer honorary doctorates to rich and successful people. Maybe you too can be one of them.

Finally, if you define “success” as doing what interests you in life, then you may not need a degree at all.  Or you may need many degrees! It all depends on what knowledge and skills are required for you to do work that interests you and that pays the bills.

Once you define “success”, you can more easily decide how earning a degree might help you achieve your goals.  Here are some things to consider:

  1. A college degree cannot substitute for native intelligence.

    There is a joke about a son who goes to college.  When he returns with a math degree, his father asks him, “Son, what have you learned?”  The son replies, “Pi r squared.”  The father frowns, “Son,“ he says, “I have wasted my money.  Everybody knows pie are round!”  You can earn a degree in a subject, but if you do not possess the native intelligence to use the knowledge you gain, the degree will be of little use to you.  When considering what degree to pursue, make sure you pick a subject that will enhance your natural talents.  Always build on your strengths.
     
  2. A college degree cannot make you like something which you have little interest in doing.

    I have met many individuals who earned degrees – often advanced degrees – in subjects such as engineering, law and veterinary science, but who do not like doing what they have become qualified to do.  When such individuals remain in their chosen professions they typically become unhappy, unproductive, and often self-destructive.  Make sure you earn your degree(s) in subjects that interest you.
     
  3. A college degree is not the end of your learning process.

    Earning a BA represents a milestone in a life of learning.  What you know today will have become largely obsolete within the decade.  You will need to “retool” your knowledge kit every six to ten years.  A good college education should equip you to learn new things, rather than equip you to recite what is already known.  Make sure your degree program emphasizes learning how to think for yourself and how to teach yourself new things.

The most productive people in life approach living as a learning opportunity.  An ideal college degree program will give you foundational knowledge in a field that you enjoy, broaden your thinking on what might be possible in the future, and give you the confidence to teach yourself what you need to succeed.
 

The author is Professor and Vice Dean of the Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities, and founding Executive Director of the 10-Day Filmmaking Academy.  In addition to his Ph.D., Dr. McClellan has earned a BA, three master’s degrees, and certifications in fields as diverse as culinary arts and construction management.

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