Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


In-Depth: What’s a UW degree worth?

“It’s like UW students need not apply.”

After more than a year out of college, University of Wisconsin graduate Carla Maas discovered that finding a job in her field of study poses a lot bigger challenge than she bargained for. Forced to take a job in customer service, she sometimes questions whether her four-year-long investment to get a biomedical engineering degree from the UW was worth it.

“There are times I look at my degree and wonder what it has gotten me,” she said, adding that to get a good job right out of college, technical college might have been a better route to career advancement.


Maas said being in the workforce this past year gave her a more realistic understanding of the value employers place on having a UW education, something she had no concept of while still in school. But more than anything, life out of college supplied her with a better sense of how to navigate the real world — and what kind of job to expect with only an undergraduate degree.

“I think our generation has the unrealistic view that they are going to get a job right out of college and make $60,000 a year,” she said.

Many students set to graduate this year are unprepared for the struggle they may face to find employment in the current job market, according to School of Journalism adviser Erica Salkin.

“There are definitely disconnects,” she said, pointing to the disparity between those jobs UW students think they can land and the reality of the current economy.

Salklin said while the typical senior thinks they earn $39,000 a year right out of college, the average employer is only willing to offer $30,000 a year for entry-level positions.

After graduation, more and more students are finding an undergraduate degree is not what it used to be. Whereas a few years ago, graduates could be more picky about jobs they took and more demanding about salaries they earn, such luxuries are no more. To get a job these days, education at the undergraduate level may no longer be enough.

“Increasingly, advance study is critical in most jobs,” UW Higher Education Professor Clifton Conrad said. “Masters degrees are increasingly becoming entry level.”

Yet many experts say going immediately on to advanced studies is not wise for students right out of undergrad. Real-world experience in the workforce may be just what young people with innumerable interests, and no real specialty, need in order to decide what career to pursue for the long haul.

“Unless you have a very focused idea of what you want to do professionally, graduate school is not a great idea right out of undergraduate school,” Salkin said.

But especially for undergraduates studying the humanities, the idea of unemployment or working in a job unrelated to their major is enough to get them furiously applying for grad schools before graduation day hits. Particularly when comparing themselves to students in more specialized fields, like the School of Business, which readily sets up graduates with jobs right out of college, life outside campus can seem just a bit too daunting.

The job forecast, however, is not so dire that UW students should give up hope. Although there may not be as many options in the workforce as graduates would like, there is still reason to remain optimistic about finding a job with a UW degree.

“It is not as dismal as people would think,” UW Business Professor Patricia Mullins said. “I think the difference now is that there are many more applicants for jobs.”

In fact, some students will perhaps be surprised by the fact there are a number of jobs out there they can get after graduation. They just may have to work a little harder for them than in the past.

“Are they getting jobs? Yes. Do they have to be a little more out there? Yes. Do they have to do a little more networking? Yes,” Salkin added.

Do Ivy League schools have an unfair advantage?

It’s conventional wisdom that dropping names can often get you far in life. Saying you attended a prestigious university during job interviews is no different.

“Perception is 90 percent of the game,” Steven Goot, deputy registrar at Yale graduate school said, adding that attending an Ivy League university often garners more positive attention from employers than going to other higher education institutions.

“One expects that having that on your transcript and background is likely to get more notice than the ‘run-of-the-mill’ school,” he said.

And it is the perception of being a more “run-of-the-mill” school that UW graduates may be forced to combat. Even admissions to graduate schools often reflect a bias toward Ivy League-educated students: nearly one-third of Harvard’s Law School is comprised solely of students who received an undergraduate degree from one of the eight Ivy League schools (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale).

The university name game is also drawing many high school students away from attending schools not as universally well regarded as upper-tier colleges.

Marc Tracy, a sophomore at Columbia University, was admitted to UW but opted for the Ivy League instead. He said what made his final decision was the opportunity to attend a school where serious academics are more “mainstream” in campus life.

“I love knowing every other person around me is very smart,” he said.

But he added that the prestige a Columbia degree conveys doesn’t hurt either.

“I do think that Columbia is [a name] that carries weight with potential employers,” Tracy said.

Yet many people are beginning to question whether an Ivy League education is all it’s cracked up to be. Grade inflation at private institutions, for example, has recently come under fire for unfairly shoring up transcripts for elite school graduates.

Ninety-one percent of seniors graduating from Harvard University in 2001 did so with some type of honors. The percentage of students receiving an A in a typical undergraduate course at Ivy League schools ranged between 44 to as much as 55 percent, according to USA Today.

And although nationwide grading trends have been on an upward climb over the past decade, the rate is significantly slower at public institutions when compared to their private counterparts. Studies reveal private schools’ grade inflation increased at a 30 percent higher rate, meaning the average GPA at those universities is 0.3 higher than at public ones.

But it is not just higher grades giving Ivy League graduates an edge. The powerful connections available at those institutions can sow lifelong benefits for students who learn to network with elites.

“At those places, there is much more of a socialization into the ruling class,” Conrad said, adding that students attending top-rated private schools not only socialize with society’s powerful, they are groomed to become that very group. “It’s the movers and shakers … the top 20 or 25 private universities retain a firm grip on career advancement, salaries and social mobility.”

Yet Conrad thinks the narrow focus on success at universities like Harvard and Yale proves a school such as the UW actually gives its students a better education in the end.

“I think the UW is preparing people for whatever they want to do,” he said. “It’s not just to be members of the ruling class.”

Many experts — and Madison alum — agree UW offers what a real college education should: a great academic environment supplemented by real world experience.

Diversity, particularly in terms of socioeconomic background, is an asset a public school like UW offers that some private schools simply can’t, often because they admit a large portion of legacies and social elites. And getting through four years at an institution of Madison’s size — which schools more than 40,000 students at any given time — can give students skills in navigating a large bureaucracy while also teaching them how to make their mark among a sea of thousands of their peers.

“We teach students how to survive,” said Ann Groves Lloyd, director of UW L&S Career Services. “I would not call what you get here ‘ handholding.’ You definitely need to seek out what you need. And that is a real-world skill.”

Even in the academic sector, many are happy to point out that UW remains competitive with more ‘prestigious’ schools. And especially when it comes to the cost — students at Madison are learning a lot more for their dollar.

“Harvard is admittedly a great education opportunity. But we aren’t too shabby either — and we’re a heck of a lot cheaper,” Lloyd said.

How elite is UW?

Although Ivy League schools are universally recognized as world-class universities, the University of Wisconsin is increasingly seen as a top college, both nationwide and across the globe.

“We are becoming an elite institution,” Conrad said. “And that’s a small circle in the public sector.”

Conrad said that alongside the University of Michigan, the University of California-Berkley and UC-Los Angeles, UW is one of the most well regarded public schools. In terms of research opportunities and the talent of faculty, there are few schools — public or private — that outdo UW.

That growing status as a premier school is giving graduates from here an increasingly more valuable degree once they complete their undergraduate public education.

“The value of the degree overall has gone up in recent years as the university has clearly established itself as one of the four great public universities,” Conrad said.

In fact, UW is becoming a more viable alternative to students opting not to attend a college belonging to the old hierarchy of schools but who still want an excellent education.

But it is not just prospective students taking notice of the university. Employers in Wisconsin — and outside the border — are recognizing UW as a premier four-year school as well.

“The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a fantastic reputation,” Lloyd said.

In fact, it may be graduates from UW, more than anyone else, who need the most convincing about the quality of education they earn during their college years in Madison.

“If anything, I think students are unconfident about the skills they get with a L&S degree,” Lloyd said. “Our liberal arts students graduate with a fantastic package of interpersonal and scholarly skills.”

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