Published on 2014/09/30

Investment Risk and Completing a Degree: Local Market Focus Critical for Student Success

Investment Risk and Completing a Degree: Local Market Focus Critical for Student Success
Universities must shape their programming options to line up with local workforce needs to ensure students (current, past and prospective) see the value of earning a credential.
A conversation the other day with a financial planner about my plan to invest $24,000 with no guaranteed return raised her ire. She proceeded to raise mine when she asked why I would make such an investment.

The answer was simple: my child needs to complete his bachelor’s degree.

This need is not unique. Many traditional students start a degree but do not complete it, or they completed an associate’s degree and want to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and to obtain a bachelor’s degree they need to spend $24,000 or more. The investment in money and time toward a degree and an unknown future return on investment (ROI) is a risk. In taking the risk, will there be an enhanced lifestyle in the form of improved employment?

Caution and concern is increasingly associated with shifts in the occupational ladder since the Great Recession. The so-called barista economy forced higher-skilled workers to perform jobs typically associated with lower-skilled occupations. In other words, “Well-educated baristas and unemployed high-school graduates are flip-sides of the same phenomenon.”[1] This is dire, and one might ask if incurring debt to finish the bachelor’s degree is worth the risk?

A report earlier this year by the Pew Research Center found that “…young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education.”[2] The same report offers six key findings about going to college vis-à-vis not going to college (click here for more).

Taken as presented, the rational argument is to take the risk because the data provides sufficient evidence to do so, but there remain thoughtful decisions to be made about what to study and the degree to obtain. In a nutshell, study a science, technology, engineering or math field or business. In the report “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College,” 78 percent of science and engineering majors and 73 percent of business majors indicated their employment is associated with their field of study, whereas 59 percent of social scientists, liberal arts and education majors indicated their job is related to their field of study.[3]

If the college graduate has geographic mobility, then the national data is pertinent. However, national findings may not be germane to local employment conditions. Consequently, adult students need to ask important questions about the local job market and the field of study under consideration to minimize the risk of getting a degree that keeps them in the same position on the occupational ladder.

Learning From Changes in the National Food Service Industry

To unpack the national employment data to local opportunities, a quick analysis of McDonald’s restaurants and fast-casual food places such as Chipotle may provide a picture of shifting trends. Among Millenials, and more so with those in Generation Y, customers are defecting from McDonald’s to fast-casual restaurants.[4] The change in these demographic cohorts’ eating habits from a large national chain to restaurants where food quality is connected in part to the local market is shifting the marketplace with overarching trends indicating flat to reduced business at McDonald’s.

In this business, the highly regularized products purchased from a McDonald’s are typically consistent from restaurant to restaurant across the country. On the other hand, fast-casual restaurants offer similar menu items from store to store but the local market influences — at least mentally if not materially — the quality of the food. In the battle between the burger and the burrito, healthier food and a more customizable menu is increasing sales.

Similarly, national universities offering academic programs ensure their classes and academic experiences are consistent from location to location across the country. Like a national restaurant chain with no local connections, national universities offer a program of study, but the program lacks the customized experience associated with the local marketplace. Instead, strong, vibrant small to mid-sized universities located in sufficiently large economies offer educational programs aligned with expectations to learn and practice the knowledge, skills and soft skills required in the local marketplace. In the decision making to complete the degree, thoughtful conversations with faculty in the local university can explain academic experiences and internships in a field of study that mitigates risk and may quite likely provide a handsome ROI.

In conclusion, an adult student’s decision to complete the bachelor’s degree must be based on answers to four very important questions:

1)      What percentage of graduates is employed in their field of study as compared to national percentages?

2)      How does the field of study align with industry in the local market?

3)      How do the academic courses weave knowledge, skills and soft skills into internships in specific career paths employers offer?

4)      When graduates are employed at the end of the program, how much money do they earn in a specific field of study?

The answers to these questions can provide assurances there will be an ROI for those wondering what happens when they finish their degree. In the better decision-making scenario that reduces risk and provides an ROI, a local university provides significant data sets that substantiate how many of its recent graduates are climbing the occupational ladder in their chosen field of study.

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[1] Galston. W. (2014, April 29). Welcome to the well-educated barista economy. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

[2] Pew Research Center. (2014). The rising cost of not going to college. Retrieved from

[3] Ibid

[4] Jargon, J. (2014, August 24). McDonald’s faces ‘millennial’ challenge. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

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Readers Comments

Janet Bicks 2014/09/30 at 10:24 am

Is it really the fact that the local institution is connected to the local economy, or is it more so that a local institution tends to be smaller and, thus, more flexible to meet students’ needs and more willing to personalize services and supports? In my view, this is the benefit of seeking out a local institution in a period of rising costs and questionable outcomes.

Victoria Bedkowski 2014/10/01 at 9:49 am

I think there’s great value for an institution to be connected to the local economy. Students can be trained to fill existing gaps in the market, and strong linkages between the institution and industry might produce job or training opportunities as part of their educational program. In a time of uncertainty over the direction of higher education as a national conversation, local institutions seem to have done this right.

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