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A Four-Year Degree: How Much Does That Sheepskin Matter?

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By Mark R. Smith, Editor-in-Chief
Scott Dorsey had a question, which he posed during a panel discussion at the BWI Business Partnership’s September breakfast meeting.
For Dorsey, chairman and CEO with Merritt Properties and chairman of the board of Maryland Business for Responsive Government, it was a question that he, among other business leaders, seem to have been asking more frequently in recent years.
And that question is: “Do workers really need a four-year college degree to be successful?”
Answered Dorsey: “Not necessarily.”
Dorsey, among others, feels that a degree, while a requirement in many fields, doesn’t necessarily equate to success as much as the aptitude for a certain job. “Far too many people, parents and their children, have been buying into the notion that in order to have a really good career, a four-year college degree is necessary,” he said.
“That degree can be one way to a successful career, but is far from the only way. Far too often, people are spending tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in order to obtain a college degree, and graduate without skills that are useful to potential employers,” Dorsey said.
“There are certainly many cases of huge financial sacrifice and crushing debt that can take many years to pay off,” he said. “In order to be prepared for a successful career, students need to develop skills and obtain knowledge that will prepare them to provide value to their employers.”

Focusing on Need
Clearly, some professions require not only college degrees, but post-graduate education. Many high-paying, rewarding, interesting careers are in areas like science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM); cybersecurity; and health care, to name a few.
But Dorsey’s main contention is that “Students need to learn skills that are relevant, and in-demand, in the workforce. There needs to be a commitment to life-long learning in our rapidly-changing world,” he said, noting career-specific apprenticeship programs at a community college and at trade schools that provide on-the-job training during the completion of core requirements, for instance, thus earning a certificate to validate a new skill set.
“Too often, there is a stigma associated with not having obtained a college degree. Too often, employers require college degrees not because of the specific job requirements, but because of the notion that college graduates are somehow more responsible,” Dorsey said. “However, many successful people not only don’t have a four-year degree, they don’t have a two-year degree, either. They may have even dropped out of school because it was getting in the way of starting their career.”
What Dorsey is concerned about is getting the right educational options in front of high school students to make them aware of the various opportunities, including several trades that have been seen as less desirable careers in recent years, as information technology and engineering opportunities have come to the fore.
“That’s resulted in fewer resources being offered for Career Technical Education. There is enormous opportunity in the construction trades for plumbers, carpenters and electricians, for instance, as well as the [seemingly more desirable] technical fields,” he said. We have tens of thousands of people in Maryland who are unemployed who desperately want to work, yet we [also have] tens of thousands of unfilled job opportunities.”

The Argument For
The general response to some of those thoughts from the academic community is, of course, balderdash. A four- (or even a two-) year degree, the higher ups in higher education argue, will not only result in the acquisition of job skills in a given industry, but also a more polished individual that more companies would be interested in hiring.
“Are there outliers? Are there people who carve out a niche without a degree? Absolutely,” said Kara Van Dam, vice provost and dean, the Undergraduate School for University of Maryland University College (UMUC).
“But, are they outliers? Absolutely,” she said, noting that her 17-year-old stepson is among those people looking for an answer to these questions. “However, if he goes to college, he’ll have far more doors open to him. That’s how our society is set up.
“There are plenty of sources that offer that, if you have a degree, you make $500,000 to $750,000 more over a career. Even hourly workers tend to see a difference and might make 90% more,” according to a 2014 report in The New York Times, titled, “Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say.”
In fact, Van Dam pointed out that there are numerous human resource departments that employ scanners that use algorithms “to knock out any résumés that do not list a four-year degree when up to a few hundred applicants apply for an open job. The computer won’t let the hiring manager see your résumé,” she said. “Today, even smaller businesses are using the job boards, like monster.com.”
Another major consideration is what skills undergrads learn in college beyond their major.
“You are also working on problem- solving, critical thinking and communication skills that are equally important,” she said. “I’ve never seen a help wanted ad for someone who lacks basic communication skills, makes people mad at the office and can’t solve problems. No one is hiring that guy.”
Van Dam did, however, relate to what Dorsey said about the need of colleges to address market needs, which UMUC is known for.
“Employers have made it clear that colleges are not addressing the market well enough,” she said. “We work directly with leaders in all industries in which we offer major programs. They help us review what we teach students to not only know, but actually do; employers are saying that they get graduates, but they haven’t always gotten past just reading about and discussing their major.
“Employers want grads who can do the real work,” Van Dam said. “We’re trying to close the gap by ensuring that graduates don’t have to be retrained.”

Cost Efficiency
Another of Dorsey’s points concerns the cost, and that’s where the friendly neighborhood community college comes in.
While there “seems to be a general discussion about the value of the community colleges,” said Mike Gavin, vice president of learning at Anne Arundel Community College, he pointed out that they provide a gateway to education for all, may it be by obtaining an associate’s degree or another avenue, like an apprenticeship, an internship, a certificate program or classes tailored to a certain industry and/or employer’s needs.
“There is a discord there,” Gavin said. “What’s left out is the quality community colleges provide at the relatively low cost.”
At the same time, he said, “When we talk to employers, they obviously have particular needs, like cyber and nursing skills, but they also want to hire people who have a college degree — in any major — because they want the people who can communicate clearly, think critically, write well and can work as team members.”
And a new hire can have all of those attributes, whether they go to the local two-year school or to a regional institution like Loyola College in Maryland, Goucher College, The George Washington University or Catholic University. In fact, those expensive private schools can create opportunities for the community colleges.
“That’s because the community colleges do their best to keep the costs low, at sometimes a tenth of the cost of a private school,” Gavin said. “Plus, the class sizes tend to be smaller. Costs keep rising at state and private colleges and, while they’re trying to do their best, they can’t compete with the community colleges on price.”
Simply put, the goal of the community college, said Jean Svacina, vice president of academic affairs at Howard Community College (HCC), is to economically “prepare our students for whatever may lie beyond. Whether that’s accomplished by earning an associate’s degree or certificate, or via taking noncredit courses” is up to the student.
Svacina is currently working on HCC’s Commission on the Future, which is being revised to ensure that student and market needs are being met. “We’ve been hearing that employers want employees who critically think, function as perceptive members of a team, and have good oral and written communication skills,” she said, otherwise known as “soft” skills.
“Students who earn a cyber certificate need those soft skills, too,” Svacina said.
Another benefit she mentioned is that while community colleges are known for attracting older learners, many of whom are well established in their fields and want to move up, dual enrollment for high schoolers is another avenue that helps students get a leg up on their educational journey. And speaking of saving money, high school students are only charged 50% of normal tuition: The costs is about $136 for full-time (15 credits and above, plus fees), much lower than most any private college or state college.
“I have nothing against the high private school costs, if the student and/or their family can afford it,” Svacina said, “but ending up $100,000 in debt is not what happens to anyone who graduates from Howard Community College. Not from our charges, anyway.”

Act on Facts
That’s part of what Dorsey wants to hear, as “plenty of people” he knows were exposed to the collegiate experience and have some debt-based regrets.
The only reason why the cost of a college education is an issue “is that the for-profit colleges take advantage: of students and families who want to attend them “and the promise of a job,” said Joe Fisher, founder and CEO of First Generation College Bound, in Laurel, which guides youth from low-to-moderate income families on their educational path; it has advised 200 students this year, recovering $2 million in financial aid for their freshman years in the process.
“Many parents are in [heavy] debt because they were misinformed and taken advantage of by the for-profit colleges. The cases against going to college are based on a desire to attend a college that is not affordable,” Fisher said. “Know that a college education is worth it — if you start with the community colleges, which students can start in high school.”
People think about their dream school, but not affordability, until they get there, he said. “Affordability is not promoted; however, how expensive a college is is well-promoted,” he said. “And a college degree is now as important as a high school education was during the baby boomer generation. If you do not attend college, your resources to get help to improve your quality of life are less than those who have a degree.”
What’s the answer? For the lower and middle class, they need to think about affordability first, then about a dream school. And just where that dream school is might be subject to change, too, especially for recent high school graduates who are still several years away from the maturation of their prefrontal cortex.
“To say that college is not a good value is not the right message,” Fisher said. “People need to think affordability, with a strategic plan, from the community colleges on up.
“That way,” he said, “parents don’t blow their retirement educating their kids. Have the facts, then act.
“And if you think education is expensive,” he said, “try ignorance.”