College: Is It Worth It?

Question markWe’re not in Kansas anymore. 

A model that has remained largely unchanged for decades and even centuries has undergone radical transformation in recent years. Higher education has entered a realm where textbooks have gone digital, classroom walls have given way to virtual reality and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have welcomed the masses. 

Combine these sweeping changes with stories of crippling levels of student debt and an economy still recovering from arguably the worst crisis since the Great Depression and it’s no wonder that some have begun to question whether college is actually worth the investment – the time, the energy, and yes, the money. 

According to an article published in The Economist on April 5, 2014, this depends. A lot rides on the school itself and the type of discipline studied. Some degrees pay for themselves, and others may amount to a waste of resources. 

Others argue college couldn’t be a safer bet in today’s climate. In The New York Times, David Leonhardt refers to a new set of data in a May 27, 2014, article revealing that the pay gap between college graduates and all others has hit a record high, leading him to conclude that “the decision not to attend college for fear that it’s a bad deal is among the most economically irrational decisions anybody could make in 2014.”

As the recession lingers on in the nation’s collective consciousness and many look to stretch their dollars with greater diligence, where in the world does a small Catholic liberal arts institution and the lone Norbertine college in existence fit into this larger issue of national debate? 

National rankings at least begin to paint a picture of a school that offers exceptional value. In particular, St. Norbert appears high on recent lists released by publications that rate specifically on education and affordability. Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s the personal accounts that add substance to the numbers, liven up the canvas and illustrate return on investment.

Opportunities explored
For Cabrini Jablon ’97 (Admissions), affordability was an issue at the heart of her own search for the place to call home during her formative years. Initially, she didn’t anticipate that she would be able to afford the school of her choice, but after completing the financial aid process, Jablon came to realize that St. Norbert was a viable option after all.

During her undergraduate years, she worked in the college’s office of admission as a tour guide, which helped shape the direction of her career path. “That’s how I began to think about the profession of admission counseling,” Jablon notes. “Being exposed to working in the admissions office and higher ed in general helped me solidify my career goals.”

Now as she underscores the value of a St. Norbert education to prospective students, Jablon is able to share not only the obvious highlights like the four-year graduation guarantee or the individualized attention from faculty but also her own experiences as both student and staff member at a school that has never lost its luster. 

“There’s just that warm feeling as if I was a first-year student that I still get every day when I come to campus,” she says.

Like Jablon, Steven Garza ’13 says his college experience left a lasting impression, and it didn’t waste any time in doing so. “Into the Streets” brought him and other first-year students into the Green Bay area community to engage in a day of volunteer service work before classes even got underway. It was an experience that he says set the tone for an education that instilled the value of serving others. 

“The greatest fulfillment we can have in life is to serve another person, serve a greater cause, serve a greater need,” he says. “I personally believe that it’s very important to want to serve bigger causes, and one way I am doing that right now is working in the federal government as a political appointee,” he says. 

His current role as special assistant to the White House liaison with the Department of Commerce came about, at least in part, because of the support he received as he took advantage of learning that existed beyond college grounds. “St. Norbert helped find me opportunity and fostered my drive to find opportunity,” he says, pointing to an internship with the office of the chief of staff in the White House as an example.

Everyone was willing to find a way to make it work, Garza recalls. “St. Norbert was allowing me the opportunity to go off campus, expand my educational experiences, and get a foot in the door,” he says. “It was one of the greatest honors of my life, and St. Norbert played a role in helping make that opportunity happen.”
Bolstering belief 
According to Garza, one of the elements that sets St. Norbert College apart is the genuine passion displayed by faculty along with a willingness to share that with students so they, too, can pursue their own unique interests with a similar sense of enthusiasm.  

The chance to foster meaningful relationships with faculty members can pay big dividends in other ways as well. “There is no way that I would be where I am today without St. Norbert,” says Marybeth Gasman ’90, professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania. 

By her own account, Gasman grew up in a poor family in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. “Not a lot of people believe in you when you grow up that way,” she says. “My whole life I’ve had people say things to me like, ‘You’re not that smart, but at least you work hard.’” 

Mentoring and encouragement from faculty members Kevin Hutchinson (Communication & Media Studies) and Eliot Elfner (Business Administration) had a profound effect on her future. “Even when other people didn’t think I was that smart, they always believed in me,” she says. “And that makes a big difference.”

A tenured professor at an Ivy League school by the age of 40, Gasman has more than proven her smarts through her many successes within academia, but the importance of the type of support she received early on is difficult to measure or quantify.

Mention numbers, though, to John Koker ’84, dean of the College of Letters & Science at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and he’ll likely light up. Hang around campus long enough, too, and you might just spot him acting in unexpected ways. 

A professor of mathematics with a passion for the stage, Koker sustains his lifelong interest in theatre by taking on roles in student-produced plays and films. In the process, he’s become a walking personification of what a liberal education can foster and send out into the world. 

“I often say that going to college is the best thing I have done in my life,” says Koker, whose academic journey began when he arrived at St. Norbert as a first-generation college student. (This fall, his alma mater adds to his long list of honors received with its own Alumni Award for Distinguished Achievement in Education.

During a stretch when it’s become popular to criticize the payoff of a college degree based on initial job placement and earnings, Koker reminds that a shortsighted view misses out on plenty. “It is well-documented that even though the cost of college is quite expensive, it pays for itself in the long run,” he says, referring to a Jan. 22, 2014, report entitled “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment” that was released by the Association of American Colleges & Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. 

The report examines earnings and long-term career paths for college graduates with various undergraduate majors, and answers questions commonly posed by students, parents and policymakers about the value of college degrees. According to Koker, it argues that “whatever undergraduate major they may choose, students who pursue their major within the context of a broad liberal education substantially increase their likelihood of achieving long-term professional success.”

Another key finding from the report, adds Koker, is that in addition to higher salaries, college graduates generally have higher job satisfaction and a higher quality of life. They are also more likely to become involved in their communities and follow their passions.

Sought-after skills
According to President Tom Kunkel, when employers are asked what it is they’re looking for in college graduates, time and again they answer with the same attributes: the ability to think critically, work in teams, communicate effectively and adapt to change. “All of these things are hallmarks of a liberal arts education, so we are providing the things that employers say they want,” he notes.

Case in point? Meet Craig Dickman, founder, CEO and chief innovation officer of Breakthrough Fuel. His company manages the energy that companies like Procter & Gamble, Georgia-Pacific and John Deere use to move products to market. 

It is a company built upon innovation and creativity, explains Dickman. It all started with a couple of patents and now, 10 years in, there are tangible efforts made to develop at least one new patentable product each year.

“Organizations like ours that are kind of fast-moving and changing within the marketplace really do need people who can look at problems and figure it out, bring a fresh pair of eyes, and bring a creative skill,” he says. Beyond that creativity, he highlights the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively as skills fostered particularly well at St. Norbert. 

The last piece of the puzzle, Dickman says, is confidence, because – within six or nine months of joining his team – employees could realistically be interacting with senior leaders at publicly traded companies with every expectation that they can hold their own. 

“Folks won’t give themselves the license to think or attack problems and certainly won’t communicate them if they don’t have confidence,” he says, adding that a liberal arts education puts students in a situation where they have the ability to build self-assurance and practice the skills that allow them to be effective members of the workforce.

As his company has grown, Dickman has found what he is looking for in St. Norbert graduates time and again. Since inception, he has hired nine alumni of the school, a figure amounting to 20 percent of his total staff. 

“If we’ve got a student coming out with an undergraduate liberal arts degree who is a creative thinker, who can communicate, who can work with others and collaborate, and is confident enough to articulate who they are, what they are doing, and what they hope to accomplish,” he says, “then we have, I think, a really exceptional person stepping into our organization.”

Transformative experience
While a high-quality education ought to prepare its students for jobs, careers and financial stability, there are plenty of other elements that, when fostered, can create an experience that just might transcend dollars and cents.

“My SNC education was worth the time, money and effort, not because it instantly translated into a high-paying job, but because it helped me transform myself as a person,” noted one alumni survey respondent. “You cannot put a price on the experiences I had at St. Norbert College,” said another. “It was a safe environment where I could explore who I was and who I wanted to become.” 

“It gave me the opportunity to see the world from a different perspective,” Koker says, noting the chance to meet people from other parts of the country and world, the opportunity to study other cultures and religions, and the ability to head off campus during spring breaks and vacations to work in homeless shelters through the campus ministry program. “It was a chance to really grow,” he adds, “and that’s where it all started.”

When relationships are factored into the equation, it’s hard to ignore the enhanced opportunities for building lasting connections within a residential campus setting where face-to-face interaction continues to remain the norm despite emerging trends in higher education.

“The friends I met have become lifelong friends,” wrote one alum. “We turn to one another in every crisis and joy, after 30 or more years.” Others speak of the meaningful relationships developed with faculty and staff. “I loved the small class size,” wrote one. “I enjoyed getting to know my professors. I felt like part of a family.” Still others, including Koker, mention marriages whose beginnings can be traced back to life at St. Norbert. (Koker is married to Susan Buche ’83.)

In the midst of swirling national debate about the worth of a college education, Kunkel says this apparent crossroads faced by the higher-education system as a whole isn’t such a bad thing. It’s leading to a shake-up of the status quo, providing more opportunities for people to pursue an education, and forcing traditional institutions to do what they do best while finding ways to differentiate themselves. 

In St. Norbert’s case, it means taking the positive attributes at the core of the school and mixing in today’s modern tools and capabilities in order to fuse it into “a really unique, high-quality 21st-century educational experience,” Kunkel says, all while keeping affordability as the main priority moving forward. 

As one respondent suggested, this type of top-notch education often finds ways to provide lessons that linger on long after the graduation ceremony has come and gone: “It was and is much more than just an education for a future career,” wrote this alum. “It was an education in how to live a good life.”

Nov. 13, 2014