Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

What is a College Degree for Anyway?

Reasonable expectations about your degree is needed for graduates and parents.

Sadly, many college grads (and their parents) are confused about what the college degree will and won’t get them. Many (if not most) people expect that a college degree is a ticket to a high paying job. As we enter the holiday season, college students (and recent grads) will likely be asked by friends, family, and neighbors, “So, what are you going to do with (name the college major/degree)?” as if your college major and degree is some kind of vocational training for a particular job. While this might be true for some very specific, technical, and vocational training institutions most colleges and universities out there (at least most that have actual campuses, tenured full-time faculty, sports programs, large libraries and such) really don’t see higher education as merely vocational training for a particular job.


Sure, some majors (e.g., engineering) tend to result in more high salary job offers than many other majors (e.g., psychology) right out of college but this tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Few college majors directly translate into higher paying and particular jobs immediately after graduation.

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For the most part, a college education has more to do with expanding world views, developing critical thinking and problem solving skills, increasing a thoughtful, richer, and deeper knowledge base, and developing the tools for continued life-long learning. It serves to form people for a fuller, richer, and hopefully more satisfying and engaged life. Certainly the expense of a college education is off putting to many who often wonder if it is worth the money. Much has been written and expressed on this topic. But a college experience should be about transforming people through education and doing so with others of diverse yet like-minded goals.

So college grads (as well as their parents) should have reasonable and appropriate expectations about what their college degree will and will not get them. Sure, they need to be thoughtful and mindful about their job and career prospects but colleges and universities really are not just about vocational training...and they shouldn't be! As Plato once famously said, "the unexamined life is not worth living." College is more about that than about being a job placement service.

I tell my students here at Santa Clara University to consider majoring and studying what they really love and discover how the remarkable gift of higher education (a gift that very few in the world actually get by the way) can be best used to give them a foundation and experience for a rich and fulfilling life. How you want to live your life and what kind of person you want to be is, in the long run, perhaps more important than what your paycheck looks like just a few weeks or months after college graduation.

Higher education, may I suggest, is about transformation, engagement with the world of ideas, and the development of quality human beings. It isn't only about a paycheck. 

So, what do you think?

Please check out my web site at and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante.  

Copyright 2013 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP


Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.


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