By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
Currently, the educational trend is shifting towards technical and two-year degrees, but there will always be a need for bachelor degree graduates. There are probably a couple of reasons for this. Industrially, the search for employees has shifted from generalists capable of adapting to the needs of the job (like chemists) to specialists (like lab techs). Academically, the programs and marketing has responded to this shift in an effort to attract more students (like from computer science to game design).
Sitting in a room waiting for an interview, both people with technical degrees and those with bachelor degrees have a roughly equal chance of getting the job. In the job, though, the person with the bachelor’s degree generally advances higher and faster. This is likely due to the broader educational experience that encompasses liberal arts, literature, speech, history, and those disciplines that makes a person more well-rounded, more eloquent, and better prepared as leaders.
We can debate the pros and cons of a four year and technical degree all we wish, but there are still a lot of students that will pursue a bachelor’s degree, and I suspect this will be the case for a long time to come. One of the common complaints about a four-year degree is the cost, so, I would like to take a moment to discuss how to be successful at completing a bachelor’s degree and how to save at least a little bit of time, money and heartache.
The biggest difference between a technical degree and a bachelor’s degree has got to be the “general education” courses. (Yes, there are also courses that are more specialized in technical degrees and generalized in a bachelor’s degree.) The purpose of these “gen-ed” courses are two-fold. First, they are a college or universities opportunity to put their “stamp” on the students graduating from their institution. One of the institutions at which I taught was a “computer technology” specialization school. While they offered majors in the traditional areas, all students were required to take computer programming courses as a part of their general education requirements. I’m told that, in the United Kingdom, it goes even farther with institutions teaching accents to their graduates so they can be distinguished by those accents alone. (Maybe this is an urban myth, but it sure is fun to think about)
The second purpose of the “gen-ed” courses is to provided a better rounded citizen. Having a degree is still rare in this country. Even today, only about 30% of our population has a bachelor’s degree or higher (and I expect will drop with current trends in cost of college and perceived benefits). This means that people with a bachelor’s degree are leaders in our community, and will be expected to be able to speak on subjects beyond their own areas of expertise.
Unfortunately, these “gen-ed” courses are often lamented by students, when, in fact, they should be celebrated. They are an opportunity to learn beyond the major, to better understand our society, and to be able to stand out as a college graduate.
I’m focusing on general education courses because there are a certain set of these that are common to all institutions, and two, in particular, are problematic for students. These are the courses that often students need to repeat, and often need remedial coursework even before being allowed to take the courses. This means that they typically walk in to their institution of choice unprepared, and each remedial course, and every retake adds to the cost of their education.
The first is English. Many institutions are calling this “composition” today. This is an important course for any professional. The written and spoken word is how we communicate, and is often the first opportunity we have to make an impression on colleagues and clients. Although society is beginning to normalize alternative forms of expression, the reality is that a lot of people still judge based on proper English. Even our current president is often the source of ridicule because of poor grammar and punctuation. If the president is the source of ridicule, what are the odds of landing a job with grammatical errors in the resume and application?
The second is math, the subject that seems to be the one that everybody loves to hate. Math teaches discipline of thinking, and how to follow procedure. You may never need to solve a quadratic equation once you pass math, but if you cannot follow the steps for solving such an equation, how can one expect to follow the steps involved in making sales? Math has a significant impact on other courses as well, such as science. As I tutor in chemistry today, it strikes me how many students do not know how to solve an equation for an unknown quantity, and can’t help but wonder how many will have to retake their science course because they are weak in math.
If you want to get a bachelor’s degree, or know a child that you are hoping will pursue one, I cannot beg you hard enough to get them to focus on and learn math and English. These subjects will make it easier to get into college, to complete college, and will help to save money and time. For children, remember that the attitude of the adults around them. Be excited about math, science and English. Ask those around the kids to do the same. Whether it is a subject you like or not, don’t just tell them you like these subjects, but show it. Ask them what they are doing, show that you love the topic they are covering in math and English and get excited at their successes.