The ability to make sound judgments and solve problems is always necessary and relevant.

You may have worked ten or more years at the company. You know all the processes and procedures. You’ve lived through all the changes, worked years of overtime and even trained a few managers above you. You have tried to keep your skills current with PMP or Six Sigma certifications and accolades in Toastmasters. Yet you are being told that to advance to the next level, you need a college degree.

Why do employers place so much emphasis on a college education? What is it that college graduates know that you don’t? The value of a college degree in the liberal arts is not just the content of the knowledge acquired. It is also the ability to make judgments and solve problems. It is the maturity in thinking that occurs while working to earn a degree that is valued by employers.

Of Freshmen and “Wise Fools”

As a psychology professor at a small liberal arts college, I am fortunate to really get to know my students. I’m able to see the growth in maturity of thought that occurs over eight semesters of college.

Freshmen start out thinking that all problems have a definitive solution. They believe the right expert can teach them the answers. In the field of psychology, for instance, they think that they’ll learn to determine for sure who is “crazy” and who is sane. And while we do deal in issues of mental health, the point is not to label people, but to understand the root causes and patterns of behavior. These sorts of deeper concerns are what students should come away with, but part of the issue is that, coming in, they’re not entirely sure what they’ll be confronting. They don’t understand the field well enough to know that not all psychologists have either a couch or a laboratory with a large pool of subjects and a box full of electrodes.

Freshmen eventually do learn that higher education isn’t about acquiring encyclopedic knowledge or learning predefined solutions to problems. The term sophomore means “wise fool,” and one of those components is generally present, depending on the student.

Sophomores are much more self-assured in their thinking. They have realized that the answer to many questions is: “It depends.” By the second year, students have learned the world is uncertain, and different factors can influence problems and outcomes. They become acutely aware of how much information they do not know, which they need to realize before they can truly learn. They recognize that solutions to problems do not pre-exist. They become more skilled at critically parsing the factors that contribute to a problem’s complexity.

However, their thinking is still not quite fully mature. They haven’t yet learned to specifically define problems. They are not yet able to synthesize information from various sources to make sound judgments. But the thinking skills are beginning to mature; thus, the label sophomore, or “wise fool,” fits these second-year students.

Applied Learning, Maturing Thought

Quite honestly, when working adults enter the classroom, this is typically their level of thinking. Experience in the workforce has taught them that some interventions work and others do not.

Working adults feel a strong desire to be able to apply what they are learning to the workplace. If they do not see an immediate application of course content to their workplaces, they begin to question the value of the education, similar to the sophomore who cannot synthesize two different contexts in a way that recognizes the abstract connections. They might be the psychologist who can find issues in others’ thinking or behavior, but sees nothing wrong with owning 100 cats or dressing up like Elvis before bedtime.

Because of their contextual myopia, many adult students begin to believe that the college degree is just an item on a human resources checklist. They search for a way to attain the degree as expeditiously as possible—to check the item off the list quickly. This is like the patient who asks for medication to avoid the rigors of therapy.

Education is not about learning a set of solutions to problems; it is about the hard work of maturing thought processes. When adult students can appreciate education as a life benefit and not just a resume builder, they usually become marvelous students that enrich the classroom experience for the other students and the professor.

Creating Knowledge… and Value

It is at this point that students are ready to grow in their maturity of thought. Early in the junior year, students realize that knowledge can be created, and that all knowledge was created by someone, so it is all debatable and requires careful investigation, particularly when they are the ones who have created it. They realize that they are learning the methodologies and thinking skills to be knowledge creators. Knowledge is based upon the questions they ask and the methods they use to acquire data and information.

Juniors and seniors learn to combine and organize information from multiple sources to form new conclusions. They learn to determine which judgments are more defensible than others as they look at details to defend their positions. Thinking also becomes more flexible during these years. Students begin to realize that new information and new perspectives should change a previous conclusion.

Clear problem definition, methods of inquiry, critical evaluation and the synthesis of information sources are skills valued by employers. While content knowledge will become obsolete over a 50-year career, the ability to make sound judgments and solve problems is always necessary and relevant. College education is valuable because it cultivates this maturity in thinking. You as a knowledge creator are valuable to your employer in ways that not even he or she can initially predict. But that’s good, because it’s what makes you an invaluable member of the team. And with a college education, you’ll be able to convince your employer that that’s true. iBi

Ann Fulop, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at Eureka College.