Last week, The Murray State News, the best university newspaper in the country, in my mind, ran a cover story titled “Major discrepancies” and highlighted the fact that at the annual Career Fair the prospective employers only listed 50 majors of the 145 majors offered by Murray State.
This headline does not surprise me. As a University leader, I am frequently asked about the majors we offer and, often followed by the question, “Do they lead to a good paying job?” I will admit there are reports that some majors have higher job placement rates and salaries than others. This should not be a surprise to anyone. We live in a market economy, and the market is for your talents and skills. But, is that a reason to choose one major over another? In the end, nobody is hiring a “major.” They are hiring a person with skills, talents and other attributes that will yield value to their enterprise.
In answering this question of the value of a university degree, I start with the proposition that a university degree, regardless of major, is an invaluable asset that will provide lifetime benefits, private benefits (i.e., financially) as well as public (i.e., benefiting society as a whole.)
The private benefits you will receive are well numerated – the most commonly cited is the increased earning potential ($1.7 million, on average, over one’s lifetime) and the likelihood of continued employment. For example, as reported at the height of the Great Recession, unemployment for those with a college degree was 8.9 percent compared with 22.9 percent for those with only a high school diploma.
Currently, the respective rates are 2.7 percent college graduates compared with 5.4 for those with a high school diploma. Therefore it is not surprising that a community with a high average level of educational attainment is more likely to have a prosperous and growing economic base. As a result, it will not have as dramatic of a decrease during recessions and will rebound quicker – and higher – when the economy is growing.
Furthermore, educational attainment also leads to the public good of a more engaged citizenry as measured through philanthropic activities, volunteerism, civic leadership and the expansion of cultural opportunities – as the inscription over Pogue Library states, “The hope of democracy depends on the diffusion of knowledge.” And, interestingly, healthier communities are positively correlated with educational attainment. In short, you will go out and do great things for others and you will make a difference in your community!
At the foundation of this is that an undergraduate degree, regardless of major, is about instilling in the individual an intellectual curiosity for the search of truth and wisdom that will lead to new answers and solutions to lasting and perplexing problems as well as new ideas and advancements in many fields. To achieve this, the process of earning a university degree is based on developing critical thought processes; creating a sense of logic and reason; strengthening communication skills; exposing and creating an appreciation for culture and beauty and their role in keeping us human; and exploring cultures – new and old.
The experience of earning a university degree is not about just imparting “transactional skills” and assisting you in getting your first job. Rather, it is about developing your mind and soul for a plethora of opportunities by encouraging you to be a lifelong learner so you will be able to welcome change, embrace ambiguity and collaborate with others who do not look like or act like you, all in effort to develop solutions to the most vexing of problems.
Because of advances in technology there is unparalleled access to information and data. This has allowed for the body of knowledge, as we know it, to double at the astronomical pace of every four years and it is shortly begin doubling every two years! Think about that. What we know is the world is expanding at an exponential rate AND you have access to this new knowledge at your fingertips.
Therefore, it is no longer about what you know today; rather, it is about how you continually learn and what can you do with new knowledge. Potential employers want to know how you assess data and determine the worth of information and is it applicable to the problem at hand. They want to know what new insights can you provide by linking together ideas that no one else has AND can you communicate these to individuals with a diverse background with perspectives and beliefs that are dissimilar, if not outright contrary, to yours. They need to know that you are able to adapt to change, if not create your own dimension of change.
You must add value in all of these areas and that is what employers are looking for in their next hire. Don’t ever let a potential employer discount you because your major doesn’t match their list – show them why you are of value to them by what you can do by not regurgitating a set of facts or truisms but showing them you think, you create, you motivate and you are person with vision. This is what will set you apart from the field.
This approach is why employers are looking to graduates from universities that emphasize logic and reasoning throughout its entire curriculum. For this reason, nationally ranked universities pursue a culture of academic rigor and require undergraduate research projects and demand extensive writing and presentations. This is why group projects, enhancing your ability to work in teams with others who are “different” than you, is emphasized and a critical component of your programs. It is not a coincidence that recognized universities provide global experiences – not only through study abroad but also through an extensive international student population and opportunities for global studies. All of these activities are intentional to develop a lifelong learner and are here for you at Murray State – regardless of major – these experiences separate you from the rest.
To conclude, instead of making your final goal as a Murray State student to “go find a job” that fits your major, let me offer a different challenge. Go forward with your Murray State degree and begin to chart your life. Your years at Murray State do not define you by merely allowing you to list your “major” on a line on a job application. It is much more than that and you worked too hard to be defined solely by it.
A degree from Murray State is a step in providing you the opportunity to do so much more. Therefore, go out and envision yourself! Go out and create your career; define how you want to advance your community; conceive how you want to be known; design how you will change the world! It is up to you to establish your own personal value to the equation – and in doing so you and your community will be richly rewarded.
Letter from Bob Davies, University President