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To degree or not degree

Can you picture the University of Nebraska at Lincoln without “Big Red” Division I football, basketball and volleyball? What would our small, liberal arts colleges like Hastings, Doane and Nebraska Wesleyan be without their sports programs?

Institutions of higher learning. Period.

At its core, the purpose of a college experience, be it a community college, small college, or a major research-driven university, is to take young talent and advance it so it can effectively serve the community’s and nation’s interests and needs, while providing the individual student with a set of life-enhancing skills and insights.

I know firsthand that the student/athlete is enriched by the experience of dedicated practice and competition. The team experience is something employers often seek out on applicant resumes. However, the emphasis we place on winning often detracts from the primary mission of the educational institutions.

The cost and benefit issues that surround higher education today might be overwhelming for many parents and students who won’t receive generous athletic stipends. According to the Wall Street Journal, after allowing for scholarship aid in 2013-14, students paid the national average of $12,620 to attend a public four-year institution and $23,290 for a private college. 

Annual increases of three to four percent and more are common and projected to continue. As a result, student debt is now over a trillion dollars in the U.S. and the default rate within two years of starting repayment is a disappointing 10 percent.

Shrinking state aid and ever-escalating costs put college administrators in a bind. Families face stagnant income with declining purchasing power, and that puts higher education aspirations on the line.

One reality is that a lot of challenging and well-paid positions do not require a college degree. Again, the WSJ reports as an example that more than 40 percent of computer support specialists and one-third of computer systems administrators do not have a college degree! These jobs are expected to grow 28 percent between now and 2020.

But the other reality is that in order to advance to management and upper management positions, in most organizations, a college degree at the bachelor’s level is needed and a graduate degree is often very desirable.

Governor Terry Brandstad of Iowa is challenging Iowa universities to offer some degree programs for $10,000 in tuition. A combination of online and college credits earned in high school is his suggestion. Very little time would be spent in a college classroom. The Omaha World-Herald reports that both Texas Governor Rick Perry and Florida Governor Rick Scott have issued similar challenges to their public colleges.

What kind of experience would that be? It certainly challenges the value a qualified educator brings to the classroom. Students challenged by engaging personally with an instructor, as well as fellow students, would be minimized, at best. (Technology can do more in that regard than is commonly understood, however.)

For the good or average student who won’t receive a large athletic or talent scholarship, I suggest taking full advantage of two-year schools. Then finish a bachelor’s program at a four-year institution, being sure to coordinate the courses taken at the two-year school with the four-year school requirements. I would not want to compete in the job market for 40 to 50 years without at least one degree on my resume. The cost/benefit is clear and as so many have noted, “education is one thing no one can take away from you.”

About the Author

Roger Doerr
Professor Emeritus, Hastings College, Hastings, Neb.

Roger Doerr is a retired professor emeritus of business and economics at Hastings College where he taught for 44 years. 
He was two-time President of the Nebraska Economics and Business Association.

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