Last December, Forbes magazine published an article on the 10 “worst” college degrees, and a sister article on the 15 “most valuable” college degrees. Even though I immediately disagreed with the reduction of “value” to a dollar figure—and noted that “most valuable” is not a direct antonym for “worst”—the message to readers was unmistakable: A college degree is valued by the employment potential and the starting wages for recent grads.
I sighed in relief as I paged through the article and didn’t find natural resource and forest management or environmental science among the ranks of their list. That said, I was surprised and dismayed to see anthropology (the study of humankind) at the top, and subjects like art, philosophy and history also considered “worst” among our college offerings.
Not long after I read the Forbes piece, a similar story on LinkedIn again pinned the value of a college degree squarely on employment and entry pay. Without question, a college education should lead to a marketable skillset and a living wage. But I couldn’t help thinking that lost in these calculations of “value” is that students might not just want to make a living—they might want to love their living.
When I think about our own programs at SEFS, it’s impossible to miss that during the last six years, our Environmental Science and Resources Management (ESRM) major and Bioresource Science and Engineering (BSE) degrees have seen steady growth. For the past few years, moreover, our BSE graduates have had a 100-percent success rate landing jobs as soon as they’re finished with school, and in many cases long before graduation.
Take Megan James, a senior BSE major who is about to graduate this June. She’s been actively involved in papermaking at SEFS, and last summer she completed an internship with Procter & Gamble. That experience led to a job offer to continue on full-time after graduation as a process engineer at a brand-new paper plant in Bear River City, Utah.
Or consider Jennifer Perkins, who graduated as an ESRM major in 2011. Shortly after she finished school, she landed a position just up the road as the program coordinator for the University of Washington Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability Office. She’s loving her job promoting sustainability projects around campus, and she credits much of her enthusiasm and environmental expertise with her time at SEFS.
I also think of Dr. Brian Kertson, a SEFS alumnus who now works with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. He came through all levels of our program, earning his B.S. in forest resources (wildlife science) in 2001, then an M.S. and then a Ph.D.—and now he has a dream job working with large carnivores, and especially cougars, in the state.
The list goes on and on, and the more I think about it, the more I see how flawed the metrics are in the Forbes and LinkedIn stories. Nowhere in these articles or analyses is there consideration of “quality of life,” or deep interest or devotion to the topic or craft that might become the focus of the majority of our waking hours. Reflecting on my own degrees in soil science, I know I didn’t enroll in the major for the employment opportunities or high salary potential. Rather, I pursued the natural resources because of my desire to work on something real and tangible, my love for the outdoors, love of science, my awe at the complexity of ecosystems and particularly soils, and for so many creative possibilities of study and exploration.
Passion will carry you a long way toward success, and that starts, in many cases, with enjoying the job in front of you. So as our undergraduate and graduate students head out into the world, I am confident we have not only improved their employability, but perhaps more important, we have enhanced their environmental and conservation literacy, sharpened their critical thinking skills, and prepared them for a lifetime of growth and career satisfaction. They’ll have to chance to do what they know, and in fields they love. I’m not convinced there’s a more “valuable” outcome you can hope to achieve from an education.
Photo of Jennifer Perkins © Jennifer Perkins; photo of Megan James © Megan James.