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Opinion: Benefits of higher education found in refinement, earning potential

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The acceleration and velocity of change taking place around our businesses and enterprises means we need employees who care about helping us accomplish our missions. We need an engaged workforce serving the customers we serve with compassion. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics reveals 75% of employers view college credentials as high quality, leading to better employability. The truth is that 68% of entry-level jobs now require a bachelor’s degree, underscoring the critical role of higher education in accessing career opportunities, according to NACE data.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn a staggering 84% more than their counterparts with a high school diploma. This substantial earning potential translates into a lifetime value of $2.8 million on average, emphasizing the unparalleled economic benefits of higher education.

However, over the past eight years, confidence in higher education has sharply declined. In 2015, Gallup surveys showed 57% trust in its positive impact, but by 2019, this fell to 48%. By 2023, confidence hit a low of 36%.

Projections suggest that public trust in higher education might fall below 30%. So, it’s not surprising that 50% of parents of college graduates, as noted by Ben Sasse, president of the University of Florida, now favor alternative career paths for their children, underscoring their skepticism towards traditional higher education.

Perhaps it’s why this Bible verse from the book of Samuel jumped out at me when I was thinking about the importance of higher education for the workforce of tomorrow: “There were no blacksmiths in the land of Israel in those days. The Philistines wouldn’t allow them for fear they would make swords and spears for the Hebrews.”

At the time, about 600 years before Socrates came on the scene, when the Jewish people needed to sharpen their tools, even their gardening ones, they had to pay Philistine blacksmiths for the service. These economic realities impacted the productivity of those who worked the land. Farming tools like picks and hoes played a crucial role in their daily lives. Maintaining their sharpness was vital to ensuring the hard work put into farming would yield meaningful results.

Yielding oneself to the process of being sharpened by higher education can very much resemble the blacksmith’s heavy hammer and hot fire. These are the two main elements  a blacksmith needs to shape a tool. In my view, now approaching four decades in higher education, one could easily make the case that the system of higher education functions like a blacksmith when we think of the roles that faculty and staff play in the learner’s life.

The abundant evidence supporting the notion that a college degree greatly enhances one’s job opportunities and income potential is undeniable. Engaging in activities like meeting deadlines, fulfilling academic obligations and mastering punctuality serves as preparation for future employment, underscoring the significance of higher education in nurturing essential character traits.

Pursuing a degree in higher education is a process of refinement, like the blacksmith’s heavy hammer and hot fire. It takes time, attention to detail and the willingness to be uncomfortable. The journey offers perspectives on life, history, purpose and suffering. Faculty come alongside the student to help guide them along the path to a degree, providing learning and mentoring support, kind but assertive redirection when needed and a roadmap to a future career. Equally important, staff members join in on this journey, ensuring that grades are processed, classes entered, financial aid processed and equipment secured, all in a lead up to the culminating event of graduation. And throughout this journey, difficult seasons will come. This is where the hot fire is most evident, providing moments for maturing and self-reflection, personal growth and an increasing capacity to not only endure but to also develop empathy for others facing similar struggles.

College graduates demonstrate a host of top-level skills such as communication and collaboration, heightened self-confidence and refined critical thinking abilities. These important life skills don’t come by simply reading self-help books or watching YouTube tutorials. These competencies are forged in the hot fires and heavy hammers present throughout the higher education journey.

Every student deserves the opportunity to experience the blacksmithing of a degree journey. This will equip them with the vocational and life skills necessary to enter their chosen career field ready to be innovative and compassionate leaders.

Mike Rakes is the president of Evangel University. He can be reached at president@evangel.edu.

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