News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 22, 2011

MARK BENNETT: A degree can open doors but in this day and age, is it enough?

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — This month, hundreds of brand-new graduates of the local colleges are staring at that piece of paper and wondering, “Was it all worth it?”

That document is, of course, the student-turned-real-lifer’s credit report. Nationwide, the average student at a four-year public college graduates with more than $23,000 in loan debts. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, the payback burden complicates their attempts to pay other bills, buy a first home, make wise career choices and even start a family. Consequently, 57 percent of the adults polled by Pew said the higher education system in the United States “fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend.”

Don’t wad up that diploma in despair, though. That degree can, indeed, open doors and have lasting value.

Despite the cynicism reflected in the poll, 86 percent of the college graduates in the survey pool viewed their diploma as a good investment, and U.S. Census Bureau statistics support that outlook. A college grad earns, on average, $19,550 more a year than folks whose education ended after high school. Also, 74 percent of the college grads think their schooling helped them grow intellectually, and 69 percent said they grew and matured personally through college.

The Pew survey’s most compelling question, though, was buried about halfway into the summary report. When asked what it takes for a young person to succeed in the world, a majority of people responding said “above all, character.” Sixty-one percent said a good work ethic is most important, and 57 percent emphasized the ability to get along with people. Just 42 percent said a college education was the foremost key to success.

Good character leads to a good life. Sounds noble. But once the twists of adulthood begin for the Class of 2011, will it really be the good guys who find success in the world?

And, what exactly is success? Individuals define it differently, and that definition can change over time.

“If you’re talking purely in terms of financial success, it depends — if you’re working for Enron, good character may not be that helpful,” Michael Josephson, whose California-based nonprofit Josephson Institute promotes ethics, said in a telephone interview Thursday. The organization operates the Character Counts program, which develops techniques and trains instructors in character education for 10,000 schools and youth agencies across the United States.

The cold, hard, broad definition of success in American culture is possessing the ability to satisfy our desires.

As Josephson explains on the institute’s website, “The most traditional way to measure the quality of one’s life is to list accolades, achievements and acquisitions. In its simplest terms, success is getting what we want, and most people want wealth and status. Yet, as much pleasure as these attributes can bring, the rich, powerful and famous usually discover that true happiness will elude them if they don’t have peace of mind, self-respect and enduring loving relationships.”

That moral struggle is age-old, and even spelled out biblically in the book of Mark: “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?” Still, in the era of Bernie Madoff and steroid-powered baseball players, the lines between good and bad character have been blurred. “Coarseness and classlessness has risen to acceptability,” Josephson said from his cell phone in Puerto Rico, where 205 Character Counts programs have been implemented recently in schools on the island, a U.S. territory.

Yet, how does character manifest itself in the real, punch-the-timeclock, change-the-baby’s-diaper world? Isn’t “good character” just a vague ideal?

A 2009 Josephson Institute poll of 6,930 people in five age groups (17 years and under, 18-24, 25-40, 41-50, 50 and older) asked if they had cheated on high school exams two or more times. Compared to those who had never done so, those who had were three times more likely to, later in life, lie to a customer or inflate an insurance claim; twice as likely to inflate an expense claim, deceive their boss, or fudge on their address to get their kid into a better school; and one-and-a-half more times likely to file deceptive tax returns.

The correlation between character and a successful life seemed well understood by a cluster of students strolling the quadrangle at Indiana State University on Thursday morning. All — Tyler Armour, a 21-year-old studying information technology; Danielle Richardson, 20, nursing; and Taylor Hueston, 20, dietetics — appreciate the value of the college education they’re pursuing. They also grasp the need for positive work ethics and respect for others, on the job and elsewhere.

“When you meet someone, they don’t automatically know what your college degree is, but they’re going to notice your personality traits and what kind of person you are,” Hueston said.

“With work,” Armour said, “if you don’t show up for it or aren’t really good at it, college won’t matter.”

The degree makes Richardson’s career choice, nursing, possible. “But you have to have compassion,” she said. “That’s what’s going to get you a job. If you’re a person that’s cold-hearted, you’re not going to go far in nursing at all.”

Armour and Richardson used the 50-year-old plateau as a milepost to gauge whether their life is successful. Richardson hopes to not be working her current college job — a waitress at a breakfast-and-lunch diner — 30 years from now. Armour wants “a job that I feel is more like a career than a job. If I’m 50 and I’m still happy doing what I’m doing, then I’ll feel I’ve done well for myself.”

Across campus, a trio of veteran educators who’ve reached that milepost stressed that learning through college, and good character, both can be paths to success. “The two go together,” said Sister Adelaide Ortegel, 72, of the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of-the-Woods. “You can’t separate them. The college education has such a variety of possibilities.”

Ortegel taught fine arts at Guerin High School in Chicago and at the University of Illinois. Two of her former high school students — Mary Alice Lambert of Melrose Park, Ill., and Cheryl Ryan of Chicago — became teachers, also, and came to Terre Haute last week to visit Ortegel. The scale that college graduates of the Class of 2011 use to measure success could determine their level of happiness, the women said. “Artificial goals,” Ryan said, such as aspiring to be a millionaire at 30, lead to trouble.

“For the people who are looking to get from Point A to Point B ‘and then I’ll be happy,’ it never ends,” said Ryan, 63.

So, if these new graduates’ college education comprises only part of their life-success equation, how are they supposed to exhibit the “good character” element? The Character Counts program teaches young people how to live out the “Six Pillars of Character” — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. In the end, the definition of success becomes the ability to possess those qualities.

Good character, Josephson said, “is the willingness to do the right thing even if it costs more than you want to pay.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or