11/04/2013 11:46 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

College Graduates Building Meaningful Lives: Don't Measure Success by Your Paycheck

In our country's relatively new meta-conversation about postsecondary education, one persistent topic -- among the swirling plethora of topics -- has to do with getting a job after graduation. You'll often see this referred to as a college's placement rate, a term that I personally dislike because I can't decide if it sounds clinical or competitive, neither of which I think is accurate or even relevant.

I don't mean to suggest that getting a job after college isn't important, but rather that we should actually see that job as one piece of a far bigger picture. Something like, I would suggest, having a life in which success is measured in more meaningful ways than "How much money did you make in your first job?" A college education makes BOTH possible -- that first job AND a meaningful life -- and speaking from personal experience, I can say that neither is exactly a walk in the park without the other.

I fully realize that I'm swimming against the tide here, and I agree that postsecondary education should be held accountable for the real value of a college degree. After all, students are spending a bucket of someone's hard-earned money on their education. But I'm troubled that colleges are finding themselves potentially facing regulation (as in, reward vs. punishment) by a federal government that can't figure out exactly how to track "the average earnings of former undergraduate students at the University of Maine at Machias who borrowed Federal student loans," to quote the White House's College Scorecard. And in the interest of full disclosure, my faith in their ability to figure out this problem isn't exactly bolstered by the fact that Washington apparently prefers to just shut down for several days rather than work collaboratively to find a creative solution to a completely different long-term problem that affects every one of us. But I digress . . .

Let me bring this closer to home. Some graduates of the University of Maine at Machias head straight for grad school, where they are generally quite successful and end up with decent paying jobs in their chosen fields of study. I love hearing those stories and feeling proud of those UMM alumni. Others are able to take their UMM credentials and immediately find employment directly or indirectly related to the subject in which they majored in college. And that's basically how it should work most of the time -- pick a major, earn a degree, land a job in said field.

But I get nervous when people start suggesting that we should no longer offer certain majors since graduates from those programs "obviously" won't be able to earn a comfortable living or even -- saints preserve us -- get a job in that specific field. I have a bachelor's degree in music because I really like music. But from age 22 to 34, I worked at a slightly better than minimum wage job that simply required me to have a college degree -- any college degree -- and that was perfect for me at that time. Even worse, I then went back to school for a doctorate in English because I enjoy reading long novels. And go figure, I'm now doing okay as a college president.

Yesterday afternoon, I had a great time watching a UMM basketball team run all over the opposing team at our first home game of the season. But part of my fun was watching our coach, a local guy who graduated from UMM a couple of years ago. (Let's call him Stan, for fun. Hi, Stan!) This is Stan's first year as a Machias head coach -- admittedly a bit of a gamble on my part since he has only limited experience. But we're a really small school, it's only a part-time job, and I'd really like to see Stan succeed at it. Stan's dream is to coach college basketball. He doesn't mind that we can only afford to pay him peanuts, or that he has to also work a couple of other local part-time jobs to make ends meet. In Stan's mind, his college degree is absolutely paying off, no matter what he majored in. Watching him on the sidelines yesterday afternoon, I could see the sheer joy that he was feeling as he watched HIS team run up and down that basketball court. Stan's not going to do UMM's almighty "average earnings of former undergraduate students" data much good, but I'm pretty sure that he's happy and engaged in what he considers to be meaningful work.

I could give more examples, but it's getting late and I need to walk the dog before it gets dark... Listen, I know that finding suitable employment and making a good salary are important. And of course we wouldn't be doing a good job at Machias if our graduates were spending all their time standing in the unemployment line and living off pork and beans. But this absurdly fast-paced, pressure-filled, oh-so-materialistic and commercialized world in which we live is hard on young people and can easily pull them away from the things that really matter in life. I sincerely believe that a college education should also impress on students the importance -- the absolute necessity -- of a meaningful life in which they get to define success for themselves. Learn to play the clarinet. Read a Brontë novel. Coach a basketball team. Or just spend an hour walking a dog.

Meaning is all around us. We just need to reach out and grab it.