ROI of a College Education
Throughout the years, one question has held the test of time: “Does a college degree guarantee you a high-paying job?” Well, just like my parents, I have been equipped with the mindset that a college degree by itself is the magic bullet for success. I went to a private high school, which costs $55,000 a year.
During my time there, I took twelve AP classes, undertook multiple leadership positions, played varsity sports, and studied 18 months ahead for the SAT so that I could be as prepared as possible for the college admission process. I knew all my hard work paid off as I nearly dropped my phone when I saw the acceptance letter from UCLA.
I honestly thought “I am set for life” at that moment. However, four years later, I learned my lesson the hard way. From my recent recruiting experience, I now know that there is a huge gap between what students learn from classes and what makes them competitive in the job market.
More specifically, I discovered that the American education system in general, fails to prepare both soft and hard skills that students needed to succeed in the job searching process. Hence, I would like to use my own experience at UCLA to reflect a broader social issue: college classes fail to prepare students professionally.
Needless to say, soft skills are critical in the recruiting process. Leadership and teamwork skills, for example, are two of the most important assets that firms look for in an applicant, yet large college classroom sizes make it difficult to implement group projects that may develop these skills. In the so-called “business” program I had at UCLA, there is not a single class that trains people in basic communication and public speaking skills, (see Dale Carenegie’s book on the subject) as if they are not required to succeed in the job interviews.
As a result, students do not feel confident during interviews and they struggle to find internships or jobs. UCLA doesn't have a designated business program, only the biz economics program, which is offered by the economics department rather than the business school, which I think puts us at a disadvantage.
Beyond soft skills, there are several hard skills that my Computer Science major fails to teach. Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint, for example, are used extensively in the corporate world, but are often neglected in the classroom.
These classes are offered at UCLA, but you must seek them out and are not in the general course book. Moreover, certain industry-specific interviews, such as case or technical interviews for management consulting and investment banking, require UCLA students to study extensively outside of the classroom because classes do not teach this technical knowledge.
Due to the failure of curriculum, many students are on their own when it comes to entering the professional world. Because of the lack of career guidance in the classroom setting, UCLA students find it very helpful to join business clubs in order to explore career options and understand what skills they need in order to land jobs or internships.
Certainly, some may argue that it is the student’s responsibility to reach out to get the help they need. While this is true, I would like to make the argument that it is also the university’s duty to ensure that students are able to grow both academically and professionally while on campus. UCLA is huge and the opportunities are there but we have to work really hard to get them.
The problem isn’t just unique to UCLA. My supervisor at my current internship, who graduated magna cum laude from Wharton Business School, told me one time that he thinks his degree is completely useless for real Wall Street work.
Elon Musk, who also graduated from University of Pennsylvania, pointed out in one of the interviews he had that a college degree’s job is to create signal effects to the employer: It “serves as an indication that the students are capable of doing great things, but this is not necessarily the case.” There have been complaints from employers that college courses are not adjusting fast enough.
In conclusion, because of the gap between classes and the professional world, achieving a 4.0 GPA from a prestigious college does not guarantee getting the perfect job, (see Peter Thiel's book Zero to One) as a person needs social skills to impress an employer to get hired. One must also be motivated and have a likable personality so that people would love to work with them, which classes can never teach.
Lastly, it is important to note that becoming happy and satisfied in life can be accomplished with or without a degree; with or without a high income. There is never an end to the pursuit of money and prestige, as there will always be someone better than you at certain things, but it's very possible to be #1 when pursuing your own path.. We should just become the best version of ourselves we can be.
However, if we want to really compare the ROI of a college education, it would be beneficial to wait a bit until the economy stabilizes and once one gets a job and works for a few years, we can then actually calculate the ROI of the college degree.
Written by Infi Wang
Edited by Calvin Ma, Jason Kauppila, Gihyen Eom, Michael Ding & Alexander Fleiss
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