So often, when I see advice regarding a college education, people speak of a college degree as some sort of magic ticket that will raise your income level. “A college degree is worth $500,000 more income over a person’s lifetime” or something to that effect is constantly touted.
This idea often pops up in the questions I get from readers. A reader will ask me if they should go back to school, not because they want to learn, but because they believe this piece of paper will directly increase their earnings.
I’ll state it right now: the piece of paper you receive at the end of your college career will do nothing to directly increase your earnings. Nothing. A college degree will simply help you to get your foot in a few more doors. It will not get you a job simply because you have that degree.
What will get you that job is what you bring to the table after you get your foot in the door. Yes, you have that B. A. or B. S. on your resume, but what else do you have that will impress? What other skills do you have that will make money for your employer or for the business you hope to start?
In the end, it’s about the skills and attributes you bring to the table, not about the piece of paper you hold.
So, what does that mean for a college education? Does that mean I hold it as being valueless?
On the contrary, I think a college education is incredibly valuable.
However, it’s not valuable for the piece of paper you get at the end; it’s valuable for the experiences you have, the skills and knowledge you actually learn, and the accomplishments you achieve while there.
If you want to come out of college and get a great job, don’t spend your time doing nothing but hitting the books, working a generic service job, and partying. That’s the recipe that a lot of college students take – and it’s a recipe that ensures that it will be more difficult than it needs to be to find a job when you graduate.
Instead, try these approaches.
Build relationships with your professors. Stay after class to ask questions. Participate in class. Hit office hours. Attend on-campus events, like lectures, that professors might attend. Ask them for more general advice, like what they did as a student to put themselves in a good position. Later, don’t be afraid to ask for employment help and reference letters.
Get a job that relates to your major in some way. The best way to start with this is to do the above – start talking to your professors. Ask them for suggestions for employment that will match your major and help you learn some basic skills. Work study jobs are often perfect for this. Yes, you’ll often find yourself doing repetitive tasks that are boring, but if you keep in mind that mastering these skills will not only impress your boss but give you a great springboard for later on in life and earn you some money and create some very impressive resume fodder and stories to tell during interviews, it’s a lot easier to focus.
Use electives to build transferable skills. When you have slots for classes that you’re unsure how to fill, look for courses that help you build transferable skills – the things you will be able to use at any job. Public speaking. Leadership. Technical writing. Time management. Communication. Information management. Basic IT skills. Take these classes and focus on the skills you’ll build.
Participate in student activities. Seek out an activity or two that’s connected to what you’re studying. Get involved, build relationships with others who are involved, and seek out leadership positions within those groups. This will not only accentuate your knowledge, but it will build relationships with future professional peers and give you some great resume fodder.
Participate in activities that build transferable skills. Beyond activities related to your studies, seek out activities that will help you build skills that you can use after school. Public speaking is always good, as are organizations that focus on leadership and debate. As always, leadership positions are always a positive.
Take any projects you have to heart. When you have a class project, don’t just look at it as a path to a good grade. Look at it as a way to build the skills you’re going to use when you’re in the workplace. Look at the product of that project as something you might be able to hold onto for a portfolio, or to build into something big. Look at it as something you’ll want to show to people in a professional environment. Not only will the grade be easy to achieve, you’ll build some skills and potentially have some great material for a portfolio.
Do something awesome. Spend a semester or two abroad. Take a year off to do a major volunteer project. Anything you can do that will help you stand out from the pack in a positive way and contribute a deep personal value to your life is something you really should consider doing.
These steps not only will build your character, your knowledge, and your relationships, but it will build a resume that will stand out from the pack when you start seeking work.
It isn’t the paper that’s valuable in college. It’s the actual skills gained and experiences enjoyed.