By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
Note: This article is part 1 of a two-part series on higher education.
As I write this article, I am in the process of finishing my last class toward my ninth college degree. And one of the questions I am frequently asked by students, colleagues, friends and family is: Why? Why have you spent so much time in school? Why did you decide to earn nine degrees? Why don’t you give it a rest already?
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I’ve thought about these questions for many years, and ultimately, I’ve settled on borrowing a quote from the 20th century British mountain climber George Mallory. When Mallory was asked why he felt compelled to scale Mount Everest in the 1920s, he famously uttered “Because it’s there.”
I borrow Mallory’s words because, as I’ve had time to reflect on my higher education experience over the past 16 or so years, I’ve realized that there are more similarities between college and mountain climbing than meet the eye. The analogy is apropos.
Mountain Climbing Summarizes My Experience with the Higher Education Process
The illustration below summarizes my experience with and perspective toward the higher education process. For the sake of this analogy, I want you to imagine that you went to high school with about 100 other students; the proportionalities used below are based on real U.S. Census data from 2018.
The vast majority of Americans — more than 90% — finish high school. So imagine that you have just graduated from high school with about 90 of your fellow students.
In our mountain climbing analogy, high school graduation is really just the base of the mountain. From that base, you and the other 90 graduates gaze up toward the summit. Everyone imagines the challenges of the climb, but also the pride and prestige that come with conquering it.
At the bottom, there is a palpable pressure to begin the climb. Parents, neighbors, teachers and community leaders all urge you to go to college so that you might maximize your individual potential. But a full one-third of your fellow high school graduates will ignore this advice and eschew the climb.
Not you, though. You have your eyes locked on the prize at the top. So you and about 60 others head off up the mountain.
On the way up, you notice that many of your fellow mountaineers are quickly discovering that mountain climbing is hard work. A fair portion — about 15 of them — will turn back. They make their way back to the bottom and join the congregation of others cheering you on as you attempt the ascent.
After a tough climb, you and the other 45 remaining climbers successfully reach Base Camp 1, the undergraduate degree. Those already there welcome you with open arms and warm salutations. There’s a feeling of completion at Base Camp 1 that was conspicuously absent at the bottom of the mountain. Family and friends cheer you on from below, and the pressure to continue climbing — if any remains at all — is far weaker than it was when you started.
You notice that the vast majority of your colleagues who arrived with you at Base Camp 1 have decided to make a permanent settlement there. More than 30 of the 45 climbers set up camp for the long haul with no intentions of going any further. But you still find yourself gazing further upward.
You discuss with your compatriots the idea of continuing. About 13 climbers from the group who arrived with you at Base Camp 1 intend to join you on the next climb.
Most of the others who are staying behind are still happy to cheer you on as you keep going. A few of them question why you would want to leave; they like Base Camp 1 and feel no need to challenge themselves any further. The crowd at the bottom signals that they will support you if you decide to keep going, but they make it clear that you don’t necessarily have to do that. They’re just happy that you made it as far as you did.
You take a deep breath, settle your nerves and head out for Base Camp 2. After another ever more arduous climb, you and the 13 others arrive at Base Camp 2, the master’s degree. Again, those already at Base Camp 2 welcome you warmly. The folks you left behind at Base Camp 1 and at the bottom of the mountain are ecstatic to see you make it to Base Camp 2. You can hear the thunderous roar of applause from below. The sense of accomplishment is deep and satisfying, and about 10 of the 13 climbers that you arrived with have begun making their permanent settlements there.
But something is still stirring in you. In the concluding part of this series, I’ll explain where this higher education story leads and why.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.
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