Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: Fall is a sign of change! Let’s change our perception of higher education

by Alicia Kalka

Growing up in West Virginia, I’ve always loved this time of year.  Fall is a reminder that change is on the horizon.

West Virginians, fall is a time to change your way of thinking when it comes to the value of a college degree.

The people of West Virginia watched a private university close its doors, resulting in students needing to find a new home within a matter of days. The large R1 university in the state is going through academic transformations, resulting in significant degree program closures.

This news has translated into job loss, uncertainty, economic impacts and continued questions about why college is worth it. I get it! I would question why college is worth it, too, if this were my experience.

In previous essays, I discussed the importance of a college degree and the impact that earning college degrees had in my life. My degrees led me to a career I love and find purposeful. I love working in higher education and serving students of West Virginia and beyond. I love being able to share my own journey and why going to college made sense to me.

With all the negative news about higher education, how can I possibly convince you to still go to college? And for those who are taking a break from pursuing a degree, why am I so passionately encouraging you to finish what you started? Because I love West Virginia and I sincerely believe the future of our state depends on it!

Higher Education Policy Commission’s Jennifer Grossman released survey results from West Virginia high school students. The survey results were startling: Wwhile nearly 80% of our current high school students are considering or thinking about going to college, less than 47% do.

When we start to think about why so few high school students in the state are going to college, I keep hearing some of the same answers: ‘It’s not worth it,’ ‘it’s too expensive,’ ‘I can make good money without a college degree’ and ‘I don’t even know where to start!’

I can explain why it is worth it, how you can afford it, the long-term gains on making good money and where to start.

 There are many universities in the state that are taking actionable steps to drive down the cost of attendance, like Fairmont State University (where I work). Remember, not every university charges the same tuition.

Scholarship opportunities are different and vary by university. For example, if a university says they will give you $22,000 in scholarship money, pay attention to the tuition and cost of attendance. They may offer you a large amount because their total cost of attendance is high.

Going to college is about long-term gains and obtaining a career you find purposeful. Did you know that most people with a college degree make $1.2 million more over their lifetime than those without a college degree? We need more people with college degrees to stay in the state of West Virginia and work. And, yes, we have jobs here that require a college education. STEM, health care, business and education are all career paths that require some form of post-secondary education. West Virginia has many career opportunities in these fields of study — we need people like you to earn your degree or, if you’re taking a break, return to college and finish your degree!

If you are struggling with where to start or how to have that conversation, you can reach out to people like me. I can help you and demonstrate the importance of finishing your degree. I can share with you how my college degrees have helped me throughout my life and provided me with career mobility.

I chose to invest in myself and I am glad that my MawMaw and parents encouraged me to go to college. You can change the course of your life, and this is your season!

Alicia Kalka serves as an associate vice president of Enrollment and Student Life at Fairmont State University, where she oversees the Admissions and Welcome Center team within Enrollment Management, in addition to various student life areas at FSU.