Q&A 1

The Worth of Higher Education


Today’s college graduates working full-time make about $17,500 more than high school graduates, according to Pew Research Center. But to many, the benefits of higher education aren’t simply financial.

A record one-third of adults aged 25 to 29 had finished at least a bachelor’s degree in 2012, a study by Pew Research Center stated. Although many career paths, such as the arts, don’t require an employee to have a degree, numerous graduates say college is worth the time and effort.

Ball Bearings spoke with four Ball State faculty members in different departments to discuss the importance – or lack thereof – a college education in their field. Dr. Michael Brown is a criminology and criminal justice professor, Kenneth Bantz is an accounting instructor, Megan McNames is a journalism and digital media instructor, and Christie Zimmerman is a dance professor.

Ball Bearings: How much schooling did you have after high school, and what did you do before you became a professor?

Michael Brown: My bachelor’s degree was from Valley City State College which is in North Dakota, my master’s degree is from Emporia State University in Kansas, and my PhD is from Western Michigan University which is in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

I work with probation departments, sometimes community corrections, and sometimes juvenile justice. I’m trying to improve things so that people can get their lives straight and contribute to society.

Kenneth Bantz: I went to Ball State and got my undergraduate degree in accounting. And then I worked for about 10 years, and I got my master’s degree in accountancy at Washington State University.

I’ve worked with Cummins and Navistar and Boise Cascade. All were Fortune 500 companies at different times. I’ve worked with large international CPA firms (Deloitte Touche, PricewaterhouseCoopers), and I’ve also been able to have my own firm. So I’ve had a diversity of experience. In all of those experiences, one of the things I really enjoyed was staff development. And so I would conduct in-house seminars and that kind of thing, and that’s how I got kind of tuned into teaching.

Megan McNames: I completed my undergraduate degree at University of Cincinnati, so that was four years. And then I was enrolled in the master’s program here at Ball State, it’s a two-year program that I took six years to finish. I really stretched out that graduate school experience as long as possible.

I found that, when you go to graduate school, and really any level of school, you have to have a good idea of what you want to get out of your experience. You can’t just show up and expect somebody to tell you what to do, or what major you should get or what projects you should do. You have to figure all of that out for yourself, and with graduate school, that’s especially true.

I found that I had not done that. I showed up and expected somebody to show me what to do and tell me what my project would be. And so I found it would be really beneficial to take a break from grad school for awhile. I did two years of classes, and then I worked for three years, and then I came back to it and finished. It took me that long to figure out what I wanted to do and what I wanted to get out of graduate school.

I’m technically an instructor of journalism but I also run the digital media minor. That is applicable to journalists, but that is also applicable to a wide range of professions. Any student on campus can get the minor, so we have business students and marketing students and history students. User experience design, which is what I do, is applicable in all of those fields. Technically my sequence is the emerging media design and development graduate program.

Christie Zimmerman: After high school, I went to Florida State for one year and I was a dance major and Pre-Med. And then I transferred out of Florida State because I knew it would take longer than I wanted to to take to finish both majors there. I transferred to the University of New Orleans which is where I’m from, and finished up my undergraduate degree in drama and communication in two additional years. So my undergrad experience was three years total.

And then I went straight from undergraduate school to grad school, which is not very common for people in the arts. But I always knew I wanted to teach at a university, so it made sense for me. Immediately after my undergrad, I did my two years of grad school. After that, my work experience was primarily freelance work, in terms of dancing. I taught semester classes, I would choreograph work for private studios, and I did that for about four or five years while I lived in New York, which I had always wanted to do as well.

After five years of that, I decided to see if leaving the city and working in higher education, like if I was ready for that. So I took a one-year visiting position and then I loved it, I knew I was ready for it. It was time. After that one-year visiting position, I moved to Muncie and I’ve been at Ball State teaching here ever since.

BB: Do you think your higher education gave you an advantage over people in your field who did not have a degree?

Michael: If you don’t have a PhD you’re not going to be able to be a professor in a tenure track position. I worked in community corrections. I was actually doing some consulting in criminal justice agencies while I was earning my doctorate, which provided me an opportunity to work in that supervisory type stuff. So, it did provide me avenues in that I otherwise would not have if I was not pursuing my degree.

Kenneth: Oh, absolutely. I had doors opened that wouldn’t have opened. I mean if I was in a position where I had better opportunities come along, or if I was in a position where maybe, I just wasn’t happy with management, and the direction they were taking things, then I had options that I could pursue. It’s given me opportunity and options that I wouldn’t have had.

Megan: Yes. Although I will tell you, I know people with master’s degrees who can’t get jobs. They don’t do anything. Just getting the degree is not what gave me value, but the experience that I had. Actually failing and realizing that I had to figure out what I wanted out of the program, and failing at that my first two years, was probably one of the best lessons.

Having a degree, even an undergraduate degree but especially a graduate degree, will show the world that you care about something enough to do it every day for so many years, and to work hard at it. That’s not always true, but that’s typically what is seen.

Christie: Absolutely. And again, that’s because I always knew I wanted to teach at a college. I can’t teach at a college without an advanced degree.

[In freelance,] maybe not quite as specifically defined an advantage, but I think my experience in higher ed did a lot for me as an intellectual person, and as an artist. I’ve learned a lot, I grew a lot, I broadened my perspectives a lot. I was able to meet people and make connections and friends and meet collaborators. And I think all of those experiences helped to kind of prepare me and make me a more versatile person when I was doing freelance work.

Could I have done that work without my higher education experience? Yes, but it probably would have been more challenging.

BB: Is it necessary that someone in your field have a college education?

Michael: I think it depends. So, here in the state of Indiana, to be a probation office, you have to have a bachelor’s degree. If you look across the country, like in law enforcement, some police departments just say ‘high school diploma.’ Some police departments say, ‘at least 60 hours,’ so an associate’s degree.

The thing is that, more and more people are getting their bachelor’s degree, so when you compare the bachelor’s degree to someone applying with an associate’s, they have an advantage. I think, across positions, a bachelor’s degree no doubt helps them get jobs.

Students here can earn a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in criminal justice. Those students, who graduate, are able to go right into the federal systems. So they’re hired in as federal agents; And so, that master’s degree substitutes as years in service. And, once they’re in, that master’s degree provides them the opportunity to become a supervisor, because it opens up doors. A bachelor’s degree simply would not give them an opportunity to be a supervisor down the road. Running around and chasing people in your 20s and 30s is great, but when you get to be in your 50s and 60s it’s not so fun anymore.

Kenneth: Absolutely. Everyone should have those opportunities, otherwise they’re basically pigeonholing themselves and really limiting their income potential.

To qualify to set for the CPA exam, and that designation opens a number of doors, you look at top executives in the accounting arena, that’s normally one of the prerequisites as a CPA. To set for the CPA exam now, you have to have a master’s degree. You have to have 150 hours.

Megan: To most people, if you’ve used your phone today, you’ve participated in some kind of emerging technology. But to create it, it’s really more about designing. Where you do need the degree is to go from using it to actually figuring out how to actually make it useful for something. So you go from just making your own and disseminating it to actually building those tools and networks that allow it to happen.

When I teach it, that’s my approach. Everyone can make media now, but it requires tools, it requires a network, and people who design emerging media largely are designing those tools and networks.

Christie: Necessary? No. It’s not necessary. But what’s necessary and what’s desired are two very different things.

BB: Did you see people in your field succeed without a degree?

Michael: The definition of success would differ, I think. I have seen some people in their 60s who are still patrol officers. And they’re there because they have a high school diploma. That’s a tough job for a senior. Most of them say, ‘I love my job.’ How they approach their job is very different from then they were 30 years younger.

For me to sit back and look, that person wasn’t successful, when they’ve spent 30 or 35 years at their job and they have done well. It wouldn’t be right for me to do that. If I were to ask them, I suspect that their answer would be based upon what their expectations were when they went in. So if they aspired to be an administrator, a police chief, a chief probation officer, but they were passed over for lack of their education, they might think: ‘My life has sucked.’

Kenneth: Not in my field, but I have seen some people that were very successful businessmen that did not get degrees. Probably one of the most successful businessmen that I’ve met had a seventh grade education. He just had a nose for business deals.

In accounting, I have seen somebody do fairly well without a degree, but also, they didn’t have options, and doors closed on them.

Megan: Not personally. I’m sure it exists, I’ve read stories of it happening. What I have seen a lot of is people doing something that is not the exact thing their degree taught them.

For example, my partner Anthony has an IT degree. He needed a job and he got a job as a programmer. He basically taught himself these programming languages and now he’s a full-time software engineer writing code. He owns his own business doing that, but his degree technically is in IT, so doing support for businesses like helping people get their computer connected to the Internet and stuff like that.

I have a degree in English literature. A lot of what I learned in that program I use, but it clearly didn’t set me up to do the thing that I’m doing now. I’ve never taken a single class on teaching. I had to learn everything I know about teaching in theories of acting learning classrooms and things like that on my own. Having a degree helped me understand how to do that research and how to learn on my own, but everything I do now wasn’t just handed to me in college. You see that a lot, people who have a degree in one thing but do something else. Once you learn how to learn, how to research, how to question things, and how to think critically, you can apply that to a lot of different things. I just don’t apply that to literature anymore, I apply it to something else.

Christie: Again, it depends on what you do. There are tons of performers who don’t even go to undergraduate school and college. A lot of performers do think that taking that time and going through that training that you get in an academic setting is important and critical. Obviously, I teach a lot of those students now so I hope that some people think that it’s important and critical.

But it depends. If you want to be a teacher at the college level then yes, you have to have a degree. Even for people who don’t need that degree qualification to pursue the arts in the way that they want to, I still think that education give them an advantage that people without it don’t have.

All of the things that we teach and learn in college; how to work with others, how to collaborate, how to be disciplined and to approach your work with focused energy and commitment. Those are obviously all skills that translate in any job, even jobs in the arts.

BB: What advice would you give to someone who wants to make it in the field you are in?

Michael: I guess I would say a couple of things. One, that I think criminal justice is a service industry. So, if you’re a victim advocate, that is a form of service. If you’re a police officer, that’s service. If you’re a probation officer or a community corrections agent, that’s service.

You could be a social work major and work in criminal justice. You could be an English major and work in criminal justice. I think, as someone providing service, it’s important to understand that that’s a difficult role to fill. You could be dealing with rape victims, you could be dealing with children who has been molested or abused or neglected.

If you are motivated, based upon what you give of yourself, if you feel like it’s a vocation and not just a job, if you are living to try to make a difference, I think criminal justice is a good career. I also tell my students that it’s important to be an idealist. The world needs more of them. I think that you are going to change the world, the idea is that you’re going to change it one person at a time. You will probably never be wealthy, most people never are. Some people chase the money, and are unhappy because they don’t get it. But if you go into your career knowing that you just want a good living, and knowing it’s about giving of yourself, then I think you’ll be happy.

I think it’s important to have a very strong circle of support. To do that, I think you need to surround yourself with people of like values. There’s a reason that police hang out with police. It’s important to have other kinds of support systems too, because values start becoming distorted and if you have other people reinforcing those distorted values, then you end up on the wrong side of the line.

I think education can help make you happy, it can open your mind in a number of ways, and I think that’s important. It helps you wrestle with life’s problems. We have a history of taking the same philosophy, putting it in a new bottle, and calling it a new wine. And we pour it out and it smells the same and it looks the same. It’s important to maybe mix it with some new stuff, and recognize that we have some good things in what we do, but there are things that we might want to add. And the only way that we’re exposed to those things is by way of education. So, I think education’s important.

Kenneth: Build your foundation with your education. What we learn and what we teach here at Ball State, for example, is the foundation that you’re going to use to basically be able to pass the CPA exam. But also, it’s the foundation that’s going to spring you into some areas, by developing good work habits. Not just in accounting, but with your people skills.

Accounting’s a real people industry. Probably the one key to success that I’ve seen is that the people really care about their clients. They really care about their success. They genuinely care about them as people. And if you have that kind of caring about your clients, your success will take care of itself.

Megan: Same as I would give to any student. There’s this really great Frank Zappa quote I’ve been somewhat obsessed with recently. It goes, ‘If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.’

The thing about college and the career that you make is that it’s all you. You have to decide what you want to do. And you have to decide what you need to learn in order to do it. Nobody’s going to come in and tell you, ‘Oh you want to be a journalist? Here’s all the hoops you have to jump through.’ And at the end, you jump through all of them and you magically become a journalist. It doesn’t work that way.

And that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to your professors and you shouldn’t listen to professionals, because they have a lot to offer. There are a ton of brilliant professors here who know so much and will share that with you. Learn while you’re here, and take value out of all of your classes and take value out of all of your interactions with your professors and your peers. But at the end of the day, it’s totally up to you to make something of it.

Christie: I would encourage them to study and learn as much as they can. To always be a student. And I use that in a broader sense of the word, not just a student at an undergraduate institution.

That’s something about the arts that I think is so critical is part of our purpose as art and practitioners and educators of the art is to kind of hold a mirror up to what is going on in our world. If you’re not constantly getting information, and learning new things, and examining ways you can tell stories, then your art isn’t going to be thoughtful in the way that it could be. So my advice always is to always be a student. To always be hungry for information.

My experience is that the most intelligent, the most creative, the most thoughtful performers often have extensive education, whether that’s in a traditional university setting or maybe from the time they were 14 they’ve been attending a professional dance school. The School of American Ballet is a great example. Students start studying there when they’re 14 or 15 and it’s this intense, educational experience. They don’t walk out of there with a college degree, but they’re learning. They’re hungry. They’re getting information. And that information makes them stronger and more competitive and more compelling artists.

BB:In one word, what is the main difference between a high school graduate and a college graduate in your field?

Michael: I’ll use a hyphenated word. Critical-thinking. I’d even throw wisdom in. Because I don’t think it’s about the pursuit of money. I think there needs to be critical-thinking to find solutions to problems, instead of finding a bigger malot. Finding something that is proportionate and has long-term effects, not about me just whacking you in the head and then saying: ‘OK, you’ve been punished,’ and then we don’t seek to solve the problem. That critical-thinking, I think, takes into consideration that people are truly complex and social. And when you combine those things, it’s difficult to find solutions, and this critical-thinking helps.

Kenneth: Opportunity. If you look at any articles about the difference in earning potential over a career or a lifespan, it’s unbelievable the difference an average college degree gets versus without a college degree.

The most successful people I’ve met are people that do something they have a passion for. Then, if they can make a decent living, it’s icing on the cake. If you can find your passion at a university and get a degree, versus right out of high school, then I think you’re going to have a higher probability of being happy.

Don’t get me wrong. College isn’t for everybody. What I try to advise young people I know: find something you have a passion for and pursue it. My thing is, everybody has their own gifts that they’ve been blessed with. Let’s say, if you’re blessed with the talent to be a great electrician, then you might not need a college degree to make a decent living. You need to get certified in your skill and trade, but if that makes you happy, do it. Go after that. But be the best in it that you can be.

Megan: I would say strategy. I think in emerging media and working with technology, it’s so important to have strategy behind what you’re doing. You can’t just make a thing and expect everybody to love it. That happens sometimes randomly: Twitter, Facebook, whatever. But most digital media, emerging media, and journalism work requires an overarching sense of what you’re doing and how it actually makes a difference in people’s lives. You need a strategy for that.

The stereotypical freshman attitude is just ‘I’m going to make this thing because I want to make it.’ When you are a graduate, you know that you can’t expect that to work. You have to have that understanding of what’s actually going to make a difference in people’s lives and how are we going to make that difference through what we do. That’s what I mean by strategy.

Christie: Broader perspective. I think that, particularly in theater, but also in dance, it’s really hard to make art about things if you don’t know about things. Your world is such a small bubble when you’re in high school, and college blows that world up a bit.

Those experiences are probably the most significant difference between a high school education versus a higher education.

BB: What is a lesson that your higher education taught you that you didn’t expect?

Michael: It was almost anti-climactic when I finished school. I thought something was going to happen. You know, when you have your degree conferred, it’s kind of a downer, I thought something was going to happen! And, the thing is, it’s not what happened, it’s what’s happening, during the process.

At the very end of my PhD program, I remember rushing all over the place, and I walked inside and I thought: ‘Wow, those flowers are beautiful.’ And I thought, ‘How many years has it been that I’ve not even looked?’ And it’s sort of like, this realization that we lose too much when we’re focused on the future. We don’t spend enough time appreciating today, anticipating that something marvelous is going to happen in the future.

I guess what I realized was that education is not just about what you learn in the books. It’s about a way of thinking, and consuming information, and then applying it to life. I remember thinking that I was the smartest guy in the room. And then, there was a point that I realized, when you’re sitting in a room with a lot of intelligent people, everybody thinks that they’re the smartest guy in the room. And I didn’t want to be that guy, I just wanted to be me.

Kenneth: When I went to school here, Paul Parkison was the department chair. Paul Parkison is an icon in Indiana accounting. He was the department chair, and he would always listen. He didn’t have to have an open door policy, but he did. That was a real important lesson, to me, that no matter who you’re talking to or what you’re dealing with, it never hurts to talk to the person that’s in charge. It never hurts to ask.

Megan: I was always the kind of student who did whatever I had to do to get it right. I had to get A’s, I had to be the best student. I would get really mad if something didn’t go my way, like I got a B+ in college and feel like I probably cried for a week over it. I always wanted to be the best at something and I always wanted to get the highest possible scores. It was a very difficult lesson to realize that that’s not what matters.

Christie: I think the best answer is learning and being willing to learn doesn’t always mean you’re going to like the process of learning. I think that, as a teacher, I find that my students are less willing to invest time and energy into things that they aren’t interested in, or things they don’t like.

If I could go back and tell my younger self something, it would be to be as open-minded as possible. And the things that I might not be interested in, or that I think I don’t like, to still invest in learning those things in the same way. Because there’s value in that too. Even if you don’t like it, that’s okay. That can be part of the lesson.

BB: For you, was college worth it?

Michael: Absolutely. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I am able to do research. I also read and understand others’ research. I am able to teach, and by doing that share what I understand and even what I do not understand. And, I am able to do service. In many ways service runs through all aspects of a professor’s job. There is service to students, the college, the university, the local community, professional communities, and larger society.

Kenneth: Oh, absolutely. I grew so much here at Ball State, and my first year I went to IU, and then I transferred, because I just didn’t feel comfortable there. My whole experience here, with the individualized attention from Paul and other professors, and smaller class sizes. I grew up on a small farm. So I was able to grow through my college experience with not just the knowledge from the academic side, but from meeting new people. Outgrowing that shell from being where I was from to developing as a person, I guess.

Megan: Yeah, it was. Definitely. I also had a very interesting college experience because a few days before I was supposed to start college I actually suffered a brain injury. I had a lot of support from my family, I had a lot of help. I was just really good at tricks like writing notes to yourself and having a map to get around.

Christie: Yes, absolutely. And grad school was too. The path that I pursued, like doing them back-to-back, and also compressing them time-wise. That was the best choice for me, both at the moment and in retrospect.

BB: If you could go back, would you have done anything differently? (different major, different school, take out loans, etc.)

Michael: I don’t think I would necessarily do anything differently. That is not to say that I don’t regret decisions I made. But I think I learned a great deal by the mistakes I made and by learning from others. It was not always the easiest road that I took, but it was a road that taught me many lessons. I hope those lessons have formed me into a better person.

Kenneth: My experience here at Ball State was so positive and such a good thing for me. The only thing I might have done differently was after being out for ten or five years in my career, I might have gone back and got a PhD. I don’t regret not getting one, but if I had to do it over again I would have looked at it harder in that point in time.

Megan: I would definitely have been more strategic. I wish I had has a better idea of what I wanted to get out of it and done more to develop resources for that. Even things like making a list of professors, and being like, ‘Which one of these professors does what I do? I’m going to go talk to them.’ Simple things like that I think would have made my experience more valuable. I would have left with a better idea of what I did want to do and what I didn’t want to do.

Christie: No, I wouldn’t. That’s a firm ‘no.’

These professionals believe that college is worth the time, effort, and money. Higher education not only immerses students in new opportunities, but it opens doors for them in their future careers. The importance of a college degree has grown in the past couple of decades. It’s no longer just a good option; higher education is a priority for many students in various fields. Students can find it difficult to look at a college education as more than just an investment. College is more than its price tag. Even today, it still is a true learning experience.

Ball Bearings has edited statements down for clarity.

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