Susan R. Madsen: Give the gift of a college education this season

A degree means more than just a better job.

During the holiday season, we all love to think about gifts to give family and friends and others who have positively impacted our lives. Gift-giving typically focuses on something we can fit in a box and put under the tree. However, I would also encourage us to consider other types of gifts — that are often in the form of encouragement, support and resources — that can positively impact our people for decades to come.

A college education can do just that.

Now, it is important to note that Utahns often focus on the value of postsecondary education solely based on its applicability to getting a good job. This has been the case for decades. For example, a recent KSL.com article explores how Utah is looking to remove as many four-year degree requirements as possible in hiring decisions, which may or may not end up dissuading individuals from attainment degrees in the first place. This would be unfortunate for many reasons.

Of course, the economic benefits of higher education — from certificates to graduate education — are incredibly important (such as higher earning power, better job opportunities, access to better health care, lower risk of unemployment and becoming better prepared to financially support oneself and family).

Yet, there are so many other benefits of obtaining college degrees that don’t necessarily relate to employment. Thousands of studies have been conducted on this topic and here are a few of the findings. (Importantly, most of these researched benefits relate to completing a bachelor’s degree or higher.)

Overall, people who have a college degree tend to:

  • Live longer lives on average; have an overall healthier lifestyle (exercise more, healthier diet, lower alcohol abuse, lower cholesterol levels, higher fiber intake, smoke less); are less overweight or obese; have increased life satisfaction and overall happiness; are more resilient and less depressed (better mental health) and obtain more resources to pay for health insurance)

  • Participate substantially more in civic and community activities (examples: donating blood, filling leadership roles); and be a more conscientious civic and community volunteer

  • Have improved self-understanding; greater independence and feelings of control in life; superior leadership skills; higher ethical and moral standards and reasoning; stronger social skills; better self-concept/self-esteem; openness to diversity and racial understanding; greater ability to make reasoned, reflective judgements; stimulating occupations; and increased quality of life

  • Have better lifelong learning skills; more intelligence/knowledge (such as English, science, math, social sciences, reading); stronger teamwork and interpersonal skills; increased ability to integrate ideas and concepts; stronger writing and verbal skills; higher critical and creative thinking, as well as decision making skills; and enhanced quantitative and analytical skills

As I talk to thousands of people across the state, I think that we often assume that most Utahns have college degrees. Yet, according to data we recently analyzed from the U.S. Census on Utah women, only 29% of women have bachelor’s degrees, 40.2% have some college, 23.8% only have a high school diploma and 7.1% have even less.

We also know that Utah has consistently ranked for decades among the top states for number of individuals with “some college and no degree.” Of course, women of color have significantly greater disparities in Utah and beyond. College of course is critical for men as well, and we have work in Utah to do there too.

Research continues to affirm that a college education is worth the time, expense and effort even if you are only considering the economic benefits. But the benefits of higher education are worth so much more. As parents, grandparents, relatives and family friends, encouraging children, youth and adults to complete college is critical. And, in addition, contributing financially and supporting in other ways can help change lives.

Utah still needs more women and men to start, continue, return and complete postsecondary certificates and degrees. We can do more. So, as you contemplate what to give people this season, think outside the box and ask how you can support those either in college or considering it. Promoting education is gift that blesses us all.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership & Director, Utah Women & Leadership Project, Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, Utah State University.