young woman working on a laptop at a crowded desk wearing red headphones
young woman working on a laptop at a crowded desk wearing red headphones

When I talked with 60 recent college graduates about the most valuable aspects of their college degree, no one described the learning that took place in a classroom. Instead, these young adults described leadership opportunities they had on campus, mentors they met through their on-campus jobs, and worldview-changing experiences like study abroad. These experiences sparked passions, introduced them to new people, and cultivated transferable skills they could use in their post-college careers.

Why are these quintessential college “campus life” experiences so important? They build what sociologists call social and cultural capital. The benefit of a college degree goes beyond the credential itself. When we talk about the value of a college degree, the intangible “squishy” elements that have nothing to do with what happens in a classroom are significant. The social aspects of college life which are so dangerous during a pandemic — the cramped residence halls, late-night student organization meetings in small offices, and communal dining areas — are actually instrumental to post-college success. Students build networks with their peers, gain access to university alumni, and find mentors among faculty and staff on campus. These networks provide guidance in identifying career pathways, obtaining summer internships, and learning about job openings. Throughout these experiences, students learn professional norms and how to signal their employability to future employers. …


Brittany Dernberger

Leveraging research for social change. Sociology PhD. I study gender, inequality, and the college-to-career transition. A friendly Midwesterner. @bdernberger

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