There’s a general debate that circulates from time to time, about whether a college education is really important. Doesn’t experience count for more? Aren’t there tons of examples of people who have succeeded despite not having a college degree? Absolutely. But let’s take a few minutes and discuss why college may be one of the filters real world employers look for, and why it might not matter a whole lot if your degree is in sociology or chemistry.

The Information in the Census Bureau’s report entitled The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Sythetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings shows the clear financial benefit of obtaining higher education. So why does this idea of experience being the best teacher remain so strong?

We all know intuitively that experience, assuming you were paying any attention at all, can be a powerful. Hopefully, you learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat them. So does college give people useful experiences, or does it make them book smart at the expense of dollars and gaining practical real world experience? Is it worth the money and time spent?

I’ve come to the conclusion that college is actually about more than just taking classes. It is about developing a set of skills you need to be an adult and practicing them in an environment that is safe and forgiving. For example, during college you often live on your own for the first time. You learn how to (hopefully) manage aspects of self-care you didn’t need to living with your parents- laundry, making/locating food, paying bills, managing work/life balance, and the like. After 4 years of this scaffolded existance, you’re probably ready to have your own apratment and first job without risking eviction at every turn.

You’ve learned to wake up on time, meet the expectations of different people (ie professors), manage deadlines for assignments of different projects at once, and hopefully, have been successful at it. You have developed time management skills. You know how to close loops and finish projects. Sure, it’s school, but real life and almost every job requires this same tool set. Without these life skills of self management and project completion, you’re gonna have a tougher time in the real world of employmnt, where this skill set is needed every single day.

A friend who is a VP at a major bank said to me he would rather hire an english major than a finance major most days, because the english major has developed a set of tools for critical thinking and analysis of literature and ideas. This ability to think and analyze data and information is more important than being a number cruncher- he can teach that skill set if needed, but the ability to be an insightful and critical thinker is harder to teach on the job.

I think college and education become a hiring filter for business because if you have a college degree, you have proven to your educational institution you can finish projects and bring things to a close. You have gained a toolbox filled with useful skills, whether they have yet been tried in real world contexts or not. And in business, that skill set is extremely important.

Statistics looking at the whole population tell us that finishing college is one of the reliable factors in earning a better living. Having a profession degree, like an MD, JD or MBA more than doubles your lifetime earnings over those with master’s degrees or bachelor degrees- lifetime earnings of $4.4 million versus $2.5 and $2.1 million respectively. Those with some college or associate degrees earn only $1.6 million over their lifetimes, and highschool grads $1.2 million. Even more persuasive is the growth in disparity of earnings between those with professional degrees over others, with the trajectory of earnings for those with advanced degrees accelerating while thos with other degrees remaining flat.

While there will always be entrepreneurs who dropped out of school but were so motivated to succeed, they did amazingly well for themselves. On average, a college degree and even higher education seems to put people on a more reliable pathway for economic success, and I think it goes beyond the books themselves, and peaks more towards the life skills gained and ability to self manage and regulate that finishing college or grad school speaks to in the long run.

What do you think? Why is this wrong if you think it’s crap? The stats tell the average story- how do you decide that you are the exception to the rule? How do we prepare our kids to be successful? Do we have them follow the safe, numbers game approach, or do we urge them to break all the rules?