I always look forward to the start of the fall semester. It’s the time of year that we are privileged to welcome students, gathered from a diversity of races, genders, ages and other demographics. What they all have in common is a dream. 

They may be 18-year-olds, one summer removed from their high school commencement, anxious as they look to the future. Or they may be individuals seeking to restart or reshape their future, and achieve new or dreamed-of career or academic ambitions. 

And to all, we offer the same message. The path to that better future often begins with a college certificate or degree. 

In recent years, some have begun to question whether college is still worth the investment. At Waubonsee, as well as at our sister community colleges, we believe the answer remains a resounding yes. On a daily basis, we see the difference quality, affordable higher education can bring to those we serve. 

According to the report titled, “Education Pays: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society,” published last year by the College Board, those holding a bachelor’s degree could expect to earn median annual wages of $56,500. Those holding an associate degree could earn $44,800 per year. But for those with a high school diploma, median annual earnings stood at $35,400 – a difference of more than $21,000 compared to those with bachelor’s degrees. 

These data support findings of a number of other researchers. Earlier this year, for instance, a Pew Research Center report found a $17,500 annual earnings difference between Americans, ages 25-32, with bachelor’s degrees and those holding a high school diploma. 

However, the value of a college degree only begins with earnings potential. The Education Pays report indicates those holding degrees also experience less unemployment. In 2012 the unemployment rate for those with at least a bachelor’s degree stood at 4 percent, compared to 6.2 percent for those with an associate degree, and 8.3 percent for those with a high school diploma.

Those with degrees contribute in other ways to society as well, as research finds they volunteer in their communities at higher rates (42 percent of those with at least a bachelor’s and 29 percent of those holding an associate vs. 17 percent of those with high school diplomas); are more politically involved and vote more often (73 percent of those with a bachelor’s and 58 percent of those with an associate vs. 42 percent of high school graduates); smoke less; and exercise more. 

While we recognize a college degree is not the only factor, these numbers are striking. The completion of a college education stands as an important step on the path to a brighter, more prosperous and healthier future for our students and our society.