A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Aaron Thompson: Don’t listen to skeptics about its value — college is still worth it for many reasons


To all of the students who recently graduated from a Kentucky college or university, thank you for having the fortitude and determination to make it to the finish line. You’ve achieved something powerful and transformative that will dramatically improve the quality of your life — a college credential.

You may have noticed that people are more skeptical about the value of college than they used to be. As I’ve traveled the state, I cannot count the number of times that someone has expressed the belief that “not everyone needs to go to college.” People who say this usually argue, “There are lots of people who’d be better off learning a trade.” Others use a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the total cost of college (including interest on loan debt) against the opportunity costs of not working. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College, they point out, and Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard after his sophomore year.

As president of Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education, I challenge this notion and assure you that your college education was worth it. A four-year degree isn’t for everyone, and not everyone wants or needs to take a traditional path. But if you want to learn a skilled trade with real earning potential, like plumbing or welding, you will need some education or training beyond high school. In Kentucky, the majority of these trade programs are offered by a community and technical college.

As for lost earning potential, unless you are a Zuckerberg or Jobs, most of the high-paying jobs you’ll get with a high school diploma are disappearing and disappearing fast. But here’s the good news: while automation will replace the need for some jobs, it also will create new opportunities. A report from the World Economic Forum called “The Future of Jobs 2018” predicts that 75 million jobs will be replaced by machines in the next five years, but 133 million new jobs will be created — a net gain of 58 million jobs. To compete for these jobs, you will need to be a good communicator, problem-solver and leader, and develop skills that are not easily replicated by machines.

Despite what you paid for college, in the long run, associate degree holders in Kentucky still earn about $4,500 more a year than a high school graduate. Bachelor’s degree holders earn $18,000 more a year. This translates to an additional $879,000 in earnings over a 40-year career. If you go on to pursue a graduate degree, you stand to earn an additional $1.34 million.

And these are just the economic benefits. There are many other positive outcomes associated with a college degree. College graduates are healthier, exercise more and live longer. They are less likely to be incarcerated, to smoke, to be addicted to drugs, or on public assistance. Their children perform better in school and are more likely to go to college. College graduates vote more often, volunteer more in their communities, and are more likely to donate to charity.

Furthermore, college introduces you to people and viewpoints you may not have encountered before. College might be the first time you have had the opportunity to have real interaction with people from diverse groups. This diversity prepares you for work in a global society. No matter what profession you enter, you’ll find yourself working with employers, employees, coworkers, customers and clients from diverse backgrounds. By experiencing diversity in college, you are laying the groundwork to be comfortable working and interacting with a variety of individuals with different nationalities, races, sexual orientations and beliefs.

I believe that higher education is a gateway to opportunity, a pathway to social mobility, and the great equalizer of all Americans. It remains the most effective public policy tool we have to combat intergenerational poverty, to create wealth, to build social capital, to improve our overall health and quality of life, and to preserve the quality of our democracy.

Congratulations, graduates, on your accomplishment. Be assured that you and your state will be better for it.

Aaron Thompson is President of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education


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