For more than 30 years, the business world was my home. I was fortunate enough to have a seat at the leadership table for large, complex organizations like IBM, leading thousands of employees through times of significant change and revolutionary business practices.
That experience is one of the reasons why I was hired to be the 23rd president of the University of Missouri System. With more than 75,000 students on four campuses, plus our Extension and health care system, we ourselves are a large, complex organization. And as all of us in higher education know or have come to learn, significant change and revolutionary business practices are right in front of us.
At first, it seemed like this job would be filled with budgets and strategic plans, and visits with legislators and campus leaders on how to embrace change and plan for the future.
Soon after I became president, however, I realized that there was a fundamental disconnect about the value of higher education. That’s why I recently visited Laura Speed Elliott Middle School in Boonville as part of my Show Me Value tour, highlighting the value and importance of higher education.
Major news outlets like Time Magazine have reported on trends in higher education, including increases in student debt or declines in job placement rates that have focused on the extreme instead of the typical. Major company CEOs like the founder of PayPal also have recently publicly denounced higher education, declaring that “too many kids go to college.” And here in Missouri – with our huge disparities between the urban and rural populations – studies have shown that Missourians don’t feel like they are getting a good return on their investment in higher education.
There was a time not that long ago when a college degree used to be coveted. Like the space race, college was a new frontier that made anything possible. It was the secret to prosperity. Now people seem to think of college as a way to drown in debt, and a college degree not worth the paper it’s printed on.
To this, I simply shake my head. By any measure, a college education is still valuable. Studies consistently show that those with a college degree earn about $1.6 million more in their lifetime than those without a college degree. Unemployment rates for college graduates are less than half than those who didn’t go to college. Not to mention a lifetime prosperity that extends to the next generation, enabling children and grandchildren to go to college.
These, of course, are just the values that accrue to an individual. As a society, we are made better by an educated population. Our culture is more vibrant. Our economy is richer. And our quality of life is greatly improved by new technologies and products that are largely developed in college laboratories and brought to market for the benefit of our fellow citizens.
Page 2 of 2 - Now there’s no promise that every college graduate will get a job the moment they graduate, or that all college graduates will become millionaires. But the odds are greatly in their favor, and in our global, competitive economy, it’s a bet I’d be willing to make.
So, the time will come for me to bang the pulpit about the need to be adaptive in higher education and how we – in this centuries-old industry – need to embrace change and develop new business practices. But for now, my focus is on a much more basic message:
Higher education is the path to success for our young people, and investing in higher education has and will continue to serve our state well as we endeavor to create more jobs in Missouri.
I appreciated the opportunity to visit with your students and community leaders, and I encourage you to join me in raising your voice in support of higher education and the benefits it provides to individuals, communities and our state.