Denise Cummins Ph.D.

Good Thinking

What’s a College Education Worth?

Business owners prefer college graduates. Here's why.

Posted Aug 16, 2012

The newest installment of the Face the Facts initiative by George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs was published this week ( Two facts were plainly evident:

1. Workers with college diplomas were twice as likely to be employed as workers with only high school diplomas. In fact,

• Unemployment among college graduates was at 4.9 percent last year, compared to 9.4 percent—again, almost double—for workers with just high school diplomas.

• During the economic recovery, the economy added two million jobs, and almost all were for college-educated workers.

2. Workers with college diplomas earn nearly double what high school graduates earn.

• Workers who had a bachelor’s degree earned an average weekly salary of $1,053 in 2011, while those with only high school diplomas $638 weekly salary.

Why do employers favor college graduates?

As a small business owner, I can easily answer that question: Because college students and college graduates frequently make better workers.

In my experience as an employer, I’ve found that, on average, high schoolers who are college-bound, college students, or college graduates are more reliable, more responsible, and more flexible in their problem-solving than those who arrive with only high school diplomas in hand. They show up for work, do their jobs well, and show a motivation to learn and succeed. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether they go to private colleges, large state colleges, or community colleges. Notice I didn’t say they are necessarily smarter than their high school compatriots. The difference is that they are more likely to have their act together. And it is easy to see why.

Getting into college isn’t an easy task. Staying in—especially with a decent GPA—is even harder. It requires diligence and drive to get in and stay in college. There are the entrance exams that must be studied for, applications that must be filled out and mailed on time, essays that must be written, decisions to be made about which school to enter, and financial aid packages to arrange. And that is just to get in. Once accepted, students must select and pass courses, decide on a major, participate in and/or lead group projects, and maintain an acceptable GPA.

Someone who has the drive and discipline to do all of that is a good bet as an employee. They’ve proved they are serious about what they’ve committed themselves to do.

Does this mean that all workers with just high school diplomas are poor workers? Of course not. But those that have the same kind of discipline and drive tend also to be those who have something else going on. They’ve started a home business or a blog, participated in sports or after school clubs, or involved themselves in community service. All of these activities show that the prospective worker has discipline, drive, and commitment. They are not interested in simply getting by with minimum effort.

Yes, but do you learn anything useful in college?

College students frequently bemoan the apparent uselessness of the courses they need to take to finish their degrees. A common question is “How is this stuff going to help me in my job?”

As freelance writer and educator Jonathan D. Fitzgerald so aptly put it: "The value of a liberal arts college education -- to you, to employers -- is that you've spent four years in a place where you were forced to consider new ideas, to meet new people, to ask new questions, and to learn to think, to socialize, to imagine. If you graduate, you will get a degree, but if you are not a very different person from who you are today, then college failed."

 College educations are expensive. But the data quite plainly show they are also good lifetime investments.

Dr. Cummins is the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think. She is retired Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Philosophy (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and a small business owner.

More Posts