Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Value" Added: The True Meaning of "Success"

We are halfway through the school year here in Fairfax County.  What does that mean, besides much rejoicing for students and faculty alike?  It means that we had two work-days this week, one of which was our mid-year in-service.  This year we were divided up into "pyramids," which includes counselors from the high-school and then the feeder middle and elementary schools.  We did this last year and it was a huge success--you can read all about it in the latest issue of School Counselor Magazine, free for members of the American School Counselor Association

The focus of this mid-year in-service was on College and Career Readiness as well as 21st Century Skills, topics I've written about before.  Two of my colleagues and I presented on these subjects, and the goal was to see what we do as a vertical team to help students explore the world of post-secondary options and link it to the world of work--perhaps we could pool our resources or come up with programming that would impact all of our various educational levels.  As we talked through this topic, it became clear that there is a lot of concern amongst our students and families about going to college and needing to major in an area or a subject that will then give them the best chance of getting a job and earning money and being "successful."  What about associate degrees and certificate programs that also lead to high-paying, highly skilled jobs?  What about apprenticeships?  The focus, though, always came back to finding pathways for our students and families to graduate from high-school, move on to a post-secondary training option, and find good-paying "successful" jobs at the end.

Finally, at one point, someone raised the question, "What about values? Why is all of this about making money?"

What about "values," indeed.  I've been thinking about this ever since.

Unless you have been living under a rock or are, perhaps, headless, you have surely noticed, at least on the periphery, the national conversation currently going on about what the true purpose of college is (is it to learn and become more well rounded or is it to prepare you for a job?), what college majors prepare you for work and a steady income, and whether you truly need a four-year college degree to get a high-paying, in-demand job in a field like technology.  Over the last couple of weeks there have been some back-and-forth columns in the Washington Post about this topic.  Michelle Singletary is a personal finance columnist who wrote a piece on January 14th that decried, "Not all college majors are created equal."  She talks about playing a "game" when she meets college students in which she asks their major and then, in her head, decides if they will have a "job" or "no job" upon graduation, purely based on this information.
"An English major with no internships or any plan of what she might do with the major to earn a living? No job.  A political science major with no internships that could lead to a specific job opportunity? No job, I think.  Engineering major with three relevant internships in the engineering field? Ding. Ding. We have a winner. Job."  (source:
The focus is on what major will lead you to a job that will then return on your financial investment in your education.  There is a chart that accompanies the column which lists the unemployment rate for certain college majors as well as the median income for those with that major.  On both counts, computer and math majors fare much better than arts majors.  The question that comes to the forefront, though, is whether the sole purpose of college and your college major is to make money?

In response, another Post columnist raised this question in a January 25th column.  She is a mother who is thinking about what her children will do in college and where they will go, and, like all of our families, faces the constant bombardment with statistics and stories that decry that unless your child is majoring in a STEM field or business, they will probably not fare well in life.
"In these economic times, it’s hard not to obsess about whether our kids are employable. The Georgetown report, and Singletary’s column, raise important economic issues that should be part of any family’s college decision-making process.  At the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, let’s not let the need to earn money squelch our children’s desire to do great work in jobs they love. College doesn’t just set the course for their life’s earning potential; it sets the course for their lives. I’m drawn again to the words of Steve Jobs, when he delivered the Stanford commencement address in 2005. 'Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.'" (source:
As a school counselor, I focus on the many media discussions and writing about the topic of college, post-secondary options, and the link to the world of work.  As such, my informal assessment is that it does seem that the focus of these studies and articles is very much on earning potential and further that higher-earning potential is equated with happiness and "success."  The above columnist raises the idea that while future financial reward should be part of the conversation, shouldn't future happiness and one's personal values also be part of the mix?

Singletary apparently received a lot of feedback on her January 14th column.  She wrote a response on January 28th to clarify her position:
" college, as I believe, both a time to learn and a time to learn the skills you need to get a self-sustaining job? Not many people who need to work for a living can afford to go to college and fail to accomplish both goals....My daughter, a junior in high school, wants to be an early elementary school teacher. She gets outstanding grades in math and science, but she doesn’t have a passion for those fields. But we talked about her career choice and had her think it through and consider other options before we all agreed she’s got a gift for teaching.  The point is we had the conversation. She also knows we expect her to get internships and any extra training she will need to make herself more employable in her chosen field by the time she graduates from college." (source:
That, to me is the key--as a family they've had the conversation, and that conversation has included values.  The point is that college major and future earnings and job potential should indeed be part of the discussion.  Students need all the information in order to make the best decision for them.  However, those components should not be the only thing considered.  We have come a long way from simply using Parson's trait-and-factor theory (take that, NCMHCE study guide!) to help guide students into possible careers and options.  Some students will indeed value money and salary above other things, but there will be some who value even more time with family, the ability to travel and take time off, the opportunity to have a social impact on their community, or work that allows them to be extremely creative and independent.  Do they need to understand that placing a higher level of importance on some of these values could mean financial struggles or lower-levels of income across their lifetime?  Absolutely.  Do they need to be made aware of how much money they may need to finance their education as compared to how much money they may make upon graduation?  Yes.  We would be doing them a disservice if we did not help them to look at their choices from all angles.  However, who are we to say that someone working with the homeless for $25,000 a year is any less "successful" than a computer programmer who is making $125,000 a year? That majoring in social work or theater is any less worthy than majoring in business or engineering?  If a student ends up majoring in a field they are not interested in and ends up in a job that makes them miserable, how will that effect the rest of their life?  If that person leaves that job and career field after a short time because they are unhappy and unfulfilled, then what purpose has truly been served?  Personal values should and need to carry weight in these conversations.

My undergraduate degree is in music, one of my Master's degrees is also in music and my other is in education and human development.  I have student loan debt from all three.  I've been in education my entire working life.  If we just use potential salary and unemployment percentages, I am probably not very "successful."  However, my loan debt is very manageable, my life is filled with choirs, singing, and music, and I work in a field in which I am daily able to give back to society.  In my own world, I live a "successful" life.

For some very simple guides to help your students, take a look at the following:
  • Five Steps to Choosing a College Major--it includes a discussion about values as part of the decision making process.
  • Self-Assessments and Your Career--this short article discusses including both interests and values as part of your post-secondary planning process and has a link to a short values assessment that can help to begin a conversation about what a student finds most important in the world of work.
  • College Board: Choosing a Major--This short brief from College Board notes what questions students should ask of themselves when trying to pick a major.  Notice that personal values and job satisfaction are part of the equation.
  • Values Inventory from the University of South Dakota--This is a free online values inventory from USD to use with your students, again as a tool in post-secondary planning conversations with students and families.

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