THE BLOG
06/21/2010 12:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A College Degree Is More Important Than Ever, So Long as It Is the Right Degree

Over the last month, hundreds of thousands of college graduates have picked up their diplomas and begun the challenging search for a job in today's sluggish economy. Growing up, today's graduates were told that if they worked hard in school, played by the rules and graduated from college, they would find a job and be well on their way to living the American Dream.

Given today's economic times, we know that finding a job isn't a sure thing. Unemployment numbers are still at all time highs -- and the number of jobs being created isn't nearly enough to address the number of jobs being sought by people entering the workforce. Companies are still not committing to hiring full-time workers just yet. And today, young graduates are competing with experienced workers who have been out of work for many months, if not longer.

For business, the margins are so tight, the room for error so small and concerns about the extent of the nation's economic recovery so big, that those who are hiring are seeking out workers who can immediately contribute to the bottom-line. Simply put, for American businesses to compete in this current economic environment, they cannot afford to hire employees that will require on the job training.

This situation has led to articles and an ongoing public discussion about the value of going to college -- with some arguing that college is no longer the right choice. A few weeks ago, the Los Angles Times published a front page story, "Is a college degree still worth it?," that questioned whether a college degree really helps secure the higher paying jobs that they once did.

During graduation "season" in May, the New York Times also dedicated a Sunday story, "Plan B: Skip College" that explored whether college is the right path given the cost of a degree and the fact that college degrees are not necessary for many jobs.

There is no question that today's job market is frustrating. It is understandable that people are discouraged by the over crowded job fairs and the fact that hundreds of people are in direct competition for the same job. And we can all see the severe economic pressures that employers are under.

But that is no reason to reject the value of a higher education degree. What we are seeing is a knee-jerk reaction to a very complicated economic picture. In fact, a college degree from the right program is more valuable than ever -- and here are three reasons why.

First -- Employers Need Workers Who Can Contribute on Day One: In recent years, businesses have "trimmed the fat" from their payroll to cut costs as they weather the economic storm. Companies that are looking to hire workers are looking for workers with the skills that allow them to come in and contribute immediately. Last month, the Academy of Art University hosted our annual "Spring Show" where the world's most innovative companies came to our campus to meet with our graduates. Company representatives were there not just to meet the students -- they were there to view their portfolios and evaluate whether or not these students had the hands-on experience and work skills that would allow them to come in and get to work on Day One. Other colleges and universities that are preparing students to add value from day one have had similar experiences. At the Academy, students do not graduate until they have produced such a portfolio because we understand what employers are looking for. A degree that allows students to develop the real-world skills sought by employers -- and ability to translate those skills from the classroom into workplace -- is a benefit that can make the difference between getting a job and not getting a job.

Second -- Graduates Today Are Competing With Very Experienced Workers: Given the number of seasoned workers who are unemployed today, graduates are competing with much more experienced workers than themselves. It may very well be the case that the so-called "new, new" means that we have an economy with much higher rates of unemployment than our country has historically experienced. Moreover, given that companies can easily off-shore jobs at a much lower per unit labor cost to Asia and Latin America, graduates are now competing head-to-head with people with real resumes and people with real resumes who can work for less. Given these current realities, a college degree that prepares students for the 21st Century economy by making sure they are capable of market-quality work in their fields before they graduate is critical. Students that have been engaged in active, direct, hands-on learning with the most up to date technologies and techniques -- and that have the portfolio to prove it -- are going to be at a tremendous advantage. As colleges and universities consider adapting and modifying their curriculums to meet the economic realities of today, they need to understand that students will need to graduate with work experience and a portfolio that helps them to compete with a pool of workers that have resumes with years of experience.

Third -- Students Must Understand What it Takes to Succeed in a 21st Century Economy: At the Academy, our faculty members are all professionals from the existing market -- artists, actors, designers, architects, video game developers, and so on. These professionals teach students about the realities of the existing high art and design fields, including what it takes to succeed. This type of knowledge -- combined with the hands-on experience discussed above -- is critical for a student to appreciate in order to prosper in this economy - and that is exactly what a college degree from our University provides. I truly believe that this is the reason why over 80% of our graduates get jobs in their fields after they graduate. A college graduate from the Academy of Art University represents someone with both great artistic and design talents as well as the ability to put those talents to work.

All three of these reasons why a college degree is worth the investment apply only to the students. Let's not forget about the benefit to society. Businesses desperately need valuable new people entering the workforce. It is in our country's best interest for colleges to produce qualified graduates, particularly when businesses can very easily look overseas to hire workers at one-third the cost to do the same work.

In America, Universities provide the brainpower that supports the companies that drive our economy. That is why historically, our country's economic success has been directly related to our competitive advantage in education. For years, our country's education system produced the best talent in the world, which helped us become the world's economic leader. Today, for a variety of reasons, we do not have the educational competitive advantage we once had. This should be all of the evidence we need to support the pursuit of a college degree.

Here in the Bay Area in Northern California, we recently received some good news about the region's economy. A new Bay Area Council survey found that the area's top executives are feeling more confident in the economy than they did just a few months ago and looking ahead, 63% expect an even better Bay Area economy. This doesn't mean that businesses will be opening their doors and hiring everyone who comes knocking. They are still going to be looking for the most experienced and qualified workers who can come in and contribute on Day One, which is what the companies need in order to recover from the recession. Higher education graduates with the real-world skills and experiences are a great hire for these businesses because they have the experience that older workers have -- yet they do not demand high salaries.

So although the economic climate is cloudy and the job market is a challenge, there is no question that a college degree from the right college or university is absolutely worth the investment.