College education a path for upward mobility

Hernan Bucheli

Hernan Bucheli

Recent research from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that median weekly income is directly related to education level. Those who have only a high school diploma are making an average of $712 per week. Compare that to the income of college graduates, who earn on average $1,173 weekly. The numbers jump even higher with each degree. Students who complete a doctoral degree earn an average of $1,743 per week, while students who go on to a professional degree earn an average of $1,836. That salary is more than two-and-a-half times what someone makes on average with only a high school diploma.

The improved social mobility that college offers not only benefits individuals, it also helps Californians, and certainly our society at large. As Jim Wolfson, president and CEO of CollegeNET states, “Higher education’s capacity to spread advanced knowledge and disperse the ability to learn across all social classes is key to both providing social advancement and optimizing our nation’s human capital development.”

John Dinh is a good example of this. John is the child of parents who fled Vietnam by boat at the end of the war there. His mother and father landed in refugee camps in Malaysia, then emigrated to the United States. John was born in Sacramento and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was the first in his family to attend university. After graduating in 2013 from the local private college where I serve as provost, John found employment in San Jose with NIO, a global startup firm that manufacturers electric cars for the Chinese market. John is an autonomous operations specialist, supporting the team that installs lasers, radar and cameras in the cars — sensors that assist the self-driving functions that the company plans to add to its vehicles. He is not only doing well financially, he is helping to improve sustainability by working on electric vehicles, a plus for both our environment and our society.

The value of higher education in the United States has often been challenged since the Great Recession of 2008 jolted public confidence in our economy and educational system. The example of John Dinh illustrates, however, that the American Dream of upward mobility through education is alive and well. On average, education continues to be the main determinant of how much income a person makes in the United States. There may be an occasional wunderkind who becomes a wealthy entrepreneur without the benefit of a college degree. That urban legend has its appeal and its notable examples, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. For almost all highly desirable careers, higher education is still essential. The path to the American Dream leads through a college campus. For those who are seeking a better way of life, a college degree is more than ever the passkey that opens the door to a meaningful career.

Chris Kernes is another example of social mobility creating a larger social impact. Kernes graduated from a Peninsula university with a master’s in clinical psychology in 2004, trained as a psychotherapist. She has now used her education to co-found a tech company that created an app for real-time, face-to-face therapy using a smartphone. The company, LARKR, connects clients with a curated network of providers. The availability of therapy through this cellphone app helps fill significant gaps that exist in mental health services in the United States. In particular, Kernes’ app can reach teens who are comfortable with the mobile phone interface. It is also useful in bringing psychotherapy to rural communities. In small towns there are fewer mental health professionals, therapy is often stigmatized, and anonymity is difficult. Chris’s app helps overcome those obstacles. Like Dinh, Kernes is working hard toward a life where she can do well personally while doing good in the world, and the university is the place where she built the foundation for that dream.

Dr. Hernan Bucheli serves as provost and senior vice president of Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California.

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