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Many people often argue if getting a college degree is worth it. According to studentloanhero.com, “Americans owe over $1.48 trillion in student loan debt, spread out among about 44 million borrowers. That’s about $620 billion more than the total U.S. credit card debt.” Are they really worth the cost? Do we need one to be successful in our careers?

I’ve been at DSM for almost three years now and I’ve started looking back at how much I’ve learned, both in college and while being on the job. I’ll be turning 25 this year and quite frankly, college seems like it happened 10 years ago.

I commuted to Ramapo College my last three years of school and although I had to take many business courses, I always looked forward to my marketing classes. I wanted to grasp as many concepts as possible to make sure that when I graduated, I was prepared.

My senior year, I started interning at DSM. I know… kind of late in the game. Anyway, I was confident that I would be able to pick things up and get comfortable quickly. And I did.

What I was expecting, however, was entirely different than what I was thrown into. I had to understand client needs, their businesses and their goals.

It was no longer just about understanding certain concepts. I was actually handling someone else’s way of making a living.

Some of these individuals had started their businesses from nothing, worked in a family business or simply put their all into growing this part of their life. I was hands-on in so many different aspects of business and I learned an incredible amount.

So, now the question needs to be asked. Was getting a college degree necessary?

To help answer that question, I had the opportunity to interview one of my favorite professors, Ed Petkus (generally referred to by his students as just Petkus), who is now the Dean of Ramapo’s Business School. My goal was to pick his brain on how exactly he prepared his students for post-graduation and what he thinks can be improved upon. Here’s what Petkus had to say.

What did you make sure to do in your classes to better prepare your students for the professional sphere?

My goal was always to produce learning experiences that would, if a student was motivated to learn and conscientious about their work, impart mastery-level knowledge about the fundamentals of marketing. Such knowledge would be applicable to almost any job or career, in marketing certainly, but also outside of marketing, because marketing processes are universal.

What do you think can be done to better prepare students for the real world?

Our most motivated, conscientious students thrive and excel in their careers, and they report that they were extremely well-prepared by the learning experiences that we produced. An education is co-created by the educators and their students. As the author of The Last Lecture, the late Randy Pausch, said “It’s like a gym. We can provide all the best equipment and personal training, but if you don’t put in the work, you won’t see results.” So, the thing we can do better is, I suppose, to get that message across to all students, or at least as many as possible.

What should students do beyond what they’re taught in school to better prepare? What have you seen a student do that has helped them excel?

Complete an internship. Then, another one. And, if time allows, another one. Stay healthy, through regular exercise, sound nutritional habits, and adequate rest and relaxation.

What do you believe are the major differences between what you learn throughout your college career vs. actually experiencing it first-hand in the workplace?

If you are a motivated, conscientious student who takes maximum advantage of the vast variety of learning experience opportunities available in your college career, then college will prepare you to adapt to and thrive in any workplace circumstance. For job-specific tasks, your employer will offer job-specific training, which is of course not what college is supposed to do. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t, as every company or organization has slightly different ways of operating.

I also gave Petkus the opportunity to pick my brain. Here’s what he came up with:

What do you think we could be doing differently to better prepare students for careers in marketing, or at least of the type that one would pursue at an organization like DSM?

I think the overall knowledge I gained at Ramapo, especially in your classes, helped to open my mind and make me start thinking like a “Marketer”. For example, I was able to understand the different perspectives that companies have vs. that of the consumer. Thinking about and understanding what the company was trying to do, understanding it from the consumer’s perspective and why certain types of marketing better resonate with them is universally applicable. I also learned the common terms used in marketing that I heard being thrown around my first day at DSM. All of that was extremely useful. However, what I would have wanted was more pressure on getting not one, but multiple internships.

I know that for some majors at Ramapo, having an internship for a semester is required. My best friend graduated from Ramapo with a psychology major and she really liked the pressure that Ramapo put on her to get various internships during her time there. She said, “It held me responsible for getting experience outside of the classroom and it helped me gain some expectations for the field.”

If this would have been a requirement during my time at Ramapo, I think I would have been even better prepared. I would have had internship experience from different places and the opportunity to be immersed in the industry even more.

My Reflection on This.

I guess you can say that college helped me… grow up. The knowledge and maturity that I gained are the intangible things that made it an irreplaceable experience.

However, to Petkus’ point, there’s really no way he could’ve completely prepared me for life after college. How could he have taught me about the infamous DSM jam sessions? Or, what it’s like to come up with a marketing campaign and see it come to life and be successful? No college education can.

Maybe people still continue to debate whether or not getting a college degree is worth it, but if this isn’t the best we can do in teaching the next generation, then what is?

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