College's Value Goes Deeper Than the Degree, Graduates Say

Alison Yin for The Chronicle

Evan Bloom says cooking at Hillel in college inspired him and a friend to start a business.
May 15, 2011

Scholastic skepticism is contagious. Pundits and parents alike continue to second-guess the value of a college degree. After all, the recession has changed the way many Americans look at big-ticket purchases; plenty of families worry that today's expenses will not pay off tomorrow.

Not surprisingly, today's cost-conscious public views college price tags with a wary eye. According to the Pew Research Center survey of the American public, only 35 percent said colleges were doing a "good" job in terms of providing value to students and parents; 42 percent said "only fair," and 15 percent said "poor."

A curious thing happened when college gradu­ates were asked about the value of their own degrees, however. In the Pew survey, 84 percent of those with degrees said college had been a good investment; only 7 percent said it had not.

Why? Perhaps it's because assessing the value of a college education is not a hard-and-fast calculation. Sure, diplomas help Americans land better jobs and earn higher salaries, and one can estimate the financial return on those investments. Yet the perceived benefits of attending college go well beyond dollars.

In the Pew survey, all respondents were asked about the "main purpose" of college. Forty-seven percent said "to teach knowledge and skills that can be used in the workplace," 39 percent said "to help an individual grow personally and intellectually," and 12 percent said "both equally."

These findings echo the words graduates often use to describe the benefits of their college experi­ences. Typically, those benefits are intangible, immeasurable, and untethered to narrow questions about what a particular degree "got" them.

Evan Bloom's diploma will tell you only so much about him. As an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, Mr. Bloom considered several majors. He wanted to take hands-on courses that would require creative thinking. Finally, he settled on architecture.

After graduating, in 2007, Mr. Bloom worked in construction management for a few years, but life inside a cubicle bored him. Recently, he decided to pursue a passion for which he has no credentials: cooking.

Mr. Bloom, 25, is the co-founder of Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, a catering business in San Francisco. The venture, which serves the public out of rented space once a week, has yet to become a full-time, brick-and-mortar business. That's likely to change as soon as investors come aboard.

Mr. Bloom believes his out-of-classroom experiences prepared him to become a restaurateur. At Berkeley he was active in the student government, honing his networking skills. As a member of the university's Hillel chapter, he and a friend, Leo Beckerman, cooked weekly meals for groups of 250. The experience inspired them to start Wise Sons together.

More than once, Mr. Bloom has thought about the power of connections made in college. An alumnus of his fraternity helped him get an internship with the contractor for whom he later worked. And had he not met Mr. Beckerman at a bar one night years ago, he might still be doing something he enjoys less than making pastrami and rye bread.

"My classes were great, but it was really everything else I was doing that mattered the most," Mr. Bloom said. "It was tapping into this whole sphere of influences."

'Basic, Fundamental Training'

The way her life unfolded, Vanessa Mera didn't end up needing her bachelor's degrees in psychology and economics. After graduating from the University of Miami in 2001, she and her sister took over their parents' import-export-distribution business, called VZ Solutions Inc., in Miami.

Still, Ms. Mera, 31, says her time in college was crucial. As a freshman, she had expected to major in biology and go on to medical school. Over time, she realized that she didn't want to become a doctor. "In college, you come in thinking one thing about yourself," she said, "and you leave thinking in a completely different way."

Ms. Mera, who had attended a private all-girls high school, believes that interacting with people of different backgrounds helped her overcome her shyness. So, too, did the time she spent studying in Spain.

Surrounded by many high-achieving students at Miami, Ms. Mera developed a competitive streak. If you want to land a good internship, she learned, you must put yourself out there.

"I realized that just because you had good grades didn't mean you were going to get anywhere," Ms. Mera said. "Without those four years, I wouldn't be the businessperson I am today. I wouldn't have the confidence."

Jane Knecht can relate. She enrolled at the University of Virginia in the late 1970s, unsure of what she wanted to study. She signed up for an introductory rhetoric course. "I didn't even know what the word meant," she said.

Soon, Ms. Knecht couldn't get enough. In a course on rhetoric and social theory, she recalled, a professor gave students three unrelated pieces of writing and told them to synthesize an argument that tied them all together. At first, she froze up, worried that she couldn't do it. Then the writing flowed.

As Ms. Knecht practiced public speaking and wrote a mountain of papers, her self-confidence soared: "It was basic, fundamental training."

Ms. Knecht graduated in 1982 with a degree in speech communications. She had planned to go to law school, but instead spent seven years at home with her two children before entering the work force. At 52, she's now director of business development at the Water Environment Research Foundation, in Alexandria, Va.

Without a bachelor's degree, Ms. Knecht figures, she wouldn't have been considered for the job. Many of her colleagues have master's degrees or Ph.D.'s. Moreover, she believes college prepared her for day-to-day challenges.

"Everything in my job is relationship-based," said Ms. Knecht, who on a recent after­noon was preparing to run a conference call with business associates in Australia, followed by a board meeting. "My classes helped me recognize the importance of listening and effective negotiating, and how to go into new situations, which I do all the time."

Billy Ray, 59, described his degree as a door that led him to prosperity. His parents were poor, as were most of his childhood friends. "We were on the bottom rung," he said. "I didn't like where I was, and I wanted to change that."

When Mr. Ray enrolled at Stephen F. Austin State University in 1970, he found himself surrounded by people with fatter wallets and high aspirations. This inspired him. "I was associating with a different level of people," he said. He put himself through college by working for a construction company during the summers.

Mr. Ray says the contacts he made in college were just as crucial as the courses he took. After graduating with a degree in business administration, Mr. Ray went to work for the construction company as a licensed plumber. Later, a good friend from Stephen F. Austin offered him a job selling trucks at a dealership. "I went from making good money to really good money," he said.

Mr. Ray, who lives in Lufkin, Tex., is now a regional manager for De Lage Landen, a financial-services company. He and his wife, Alys, own a 3,000-square-foot house, and they recently purchased a second home, in Austin, where both of their sons graduated from the University of Texas.

Having written all those tuition checks, Mr. Ray understands why some people question the value of college. "You're losing four years of work time and thousands of dollars," he said. "Do you ever get it back?"

Still, Mr. Ray, the only one of three brothers to finish college, said he would have a much lower-paying job without a bachelor's degree (his current position requires one). And the value of going to college, he believes, is only increasing. "If they don't get that degree," he said, "they're going nowhere."