A degree is still a great investment


COLUMBIA - Maybe it's the influence of the liberal arts and sciences I so closely know and appreciate, but I can't help but see a bit of tragic irony in the negative perception of higher education these days. Many people have begun to doubt whether college is worth the investment - at exactly the time a college diploma is more valuable than ever and when colleges are proving to be essential community partners.

You've seen the survey results. Fewer than half of Americans think college is necessary for workplace success. And just more than half think college is a good investment. That's on us. My colleagues and I need to do a better job of showing and proving our value - both to students and to the communities we and our graduates serve.

Indeed, our message should be about the hard work and opportunities offered to produce informed, engaged and successful citizens whose return on investment is the ability to excel in the face of challenges presented by a diverse and changing world.

It would be difficult to find a better example of this than Alyssa Richardson, who grew up in South Carolina's so-called "Corridor of Shame." This rural area along Interstate 95 earned the grim moniker thanks to its decrepit schools and poor student performance that are a result of chronic underfunding for many generations. When Alyssa arrived at Furman University, she had almost no exposure to the world in which she suddenly was immersed.

Cathy Stevens at Furman's Riley Institute quickly recognized Alyssa's unique challenges, as well as her potential, and took her under her wing. Cathy advised and mentored Alyssa, encouraging her to broaden her experiences, and Alyssa did exactly that. She studied economics and trade relations in Hawaii, traveled to Ottawa to learn how the Canadian parliament passes legislation and trekked across the country to compete in mock trial tournaments.

Just as important as her high-quality academic instruction were the intangible soft skills Alyssa learned, such as having confidence in her questions and answers and speaking in social situations.

Alyssa used Furman as a springboard to Harvard Law School and a position with the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Carolina, where she prosecutes civil rights violations. Her story is so compelling that it has been used often when describing "The Furman Advantage" - President Elizabeth Davis' promise to give every student the same kind of learning experience that transformed Alyssa.

Just as the Riley Institute is connecting faculty and students like Alyssa with communities to tackle real challenges in leadership, education and diversity, Furman's Shi Center for Sustainability is weatherizing homes, cultivating an organic farm and studying best practices for community sustainability.

Our Institute for the Advancement of Community Health is cataloging health and family resources for underserved communities, finding legal remedies for medical problems and creating environments where a healthy choice is the easy choice.

Through these centers and institutes, we're creating value by teaching students through applied learning and research what it means to help improve the quality of life, wherever you live. We're providing real value by addressing and helping to solve the problems affecting our community and the many communities in which our graduates will work and serve.

In fact, college graduates are more than twice as likely to volunteer in their communities. They donate to charities at more than three times the rate of non-graduates. They will pay 14 times more taxes in their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma, while being half as likely to require government assistance. And, yes, their career prospects are markedly better.

The individual return on investment in higher education has never been greater. The benefit to society has never been more profound. That is why I support the Association of Governing Boards' Guardians Initiative to protect and promote higher education and its service to our communities and our nation.

Although we may not be perfect, we know that we're serving a purpose and making a difference.

Richard Riley, a 1954 Furman graduate and trustee emeritus, is a former S.C. governor and U.S. education secretary and currently serves as advisory chairman of The Riley Institute at Furman. Contact him at dick.riley@nelsonmullins.com.