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Why College Is Key to the American Dream

John Coogan

In Epic of America, James Truslow Adams referred to the American Dream as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”

Most Americans, myself included, perceive a college education as the gateway to that dream. An increasing number of pundits and observers, however, warn that the soaring student loan debt crisis and shortages of well-paying jobs may undermine this expected access.

Despite the concerns, higher education can help give people a better chance at achieving the American Dream. The following are but a few reasons a degree fosters success.

1. Big Gains on Your Investment

Whether you are planning to work throughout college, take out loans to pay tuition, or have family assisting, the money spent will pay off. If you are paying $20,000 annually on college expenses, a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco says you can recoup that investment by the age of 40. Although that seems like a long time, there are options for how much and how quickly you pay off borrowed money or loans. Every person and situation is different so it is best to explore what options work best for you. The same study also notes that after debt is paid off, college graduates earn approximately $800,000 more than their counterparts with only high school diplomas do.

The Pew Research Center survey on higher education shows that that this gap has widened over time and in 2013, earnings among full-time workers with college degrees were up to $17,500 more annually than those who only graduated high school. Other key findings from this survey are that among millennials, two-thirds had to borrow money to receive their degree, and still 86% of those that borrowed believe receiving their degree is or will be worth the investment. Investing in a degree pays off.

2. An Investment in Yourself

While studies show a college education is key to having a higher household income, what you do in those four or more years matters just as much to secure a job. Return on investment is much more than a starting salary and every dollar made over a lifetime.

During college, students have a chance to join campus organizations, volunteer in the community, play sports and complete internships. Each of these activities builds skills, knowledge and expertise that can help in finding a first job. Many early career opportunities seek candidates with experience, and while an applicant might not have every job-specific skill, there are many transferable skills a student learns from college beyond coursework.

One of those skills is the ability to prioritize, which is important in any career. For many students, college is their first opportunity to fully control their schedule and workload. During college, students learn to not only prioritize individual assignments with deadlines but also manage several roles in and outside of the classroom.

Beyond career skill sets, college activities give students a chance to explore the world and their interests. These experiences are often immeasurable in terms of monetary impact, but irreplaceable in creating a rich and full life that is a core component of the American Dream.

3. Networking for Future Success

Another major benefit of investing in college is the ability to meet fellow students who will join the same ultimate career path, and begin to build a career network. College offers the chance to join organizations with peers, mentors and experts who share similar interests. During this time, students can cultivate impactful relationships that can benefit them long after graduation.

Recent commencement ceremonies across the country celebrate the end of college careers. As these graduates embark on their own quest for that ever-present and ever-changing American Dream, I believe they will find that their education has been a vital part of achieving it.

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