Is a college degree still worth it? A Michigan University President Weighs in

(What follows is an editorial comment from Lake Superior State University President Tom Pleger)

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – As a university president, I am often asked about the value of college. Recently, I had an engaging conversation with several professionals outside of the Academy about the value of a four-year degree and beyond. The conversation centered around the premise that college was too expensive for most and, consequently, the return on investment was not worth it. Unfortunately, there are many who do not fully understand the value of a university education. It is more than a good job, it is much more than earning power – it is about enrichment and opportunity.

College is a transformational experience. A true university education exposes one to new ideas, new subjects, different people and perspectives, and develops the skills of critical thinking, an understanding of math and science, communication skills, information literacy, an appreciation and understanding of the human condition, an appreciation of the arts, and global awareness, and a thirst for life-long learning. These skills also enhance and foster empathy, creativity, curiosity, and adaptability. The return on investment is a series of highly sought after skills that lead to opportunity. Opportunity to travel and engage people from different cultures and backgrounds, opportunity to be involved in public service and the public good, opportunity to innovate, and opportunity to see connections between different disciplines, different perspectives, and different sets of data. These opportunities also statistically lead to greater earning power, greater employability, and flexibility when it comes to navigating changes in the economy.

I often think about the investments in time and resources that my spouse (Teresa Pleger) and I put into our education. Between the two of us, we spent 17 years in college and earned a total of five degrees. Was it worth it? Most certainly! These experiences allowed us to travel, to see the world in new ways, to appreciate the natural and social worlds around us, and to hold a number of rewarding and engaging professional positions throughout our professional careers. In terms of financial return on investment, the returns have been considerable, but the most rewarding returns have been opportunity, experience, and the development of skills that would have not been possible had we not gone to college and pursued advanced degrees.

We also often discuss the advantages we had by having parents who graduated from college. My father is a first-generation college graduate (Michigan State College, now MSU), my mother was third generation (she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison), and Teresa’s parents were first generation college graduates. Teresa’s parents both earned graduate degrees (all from UW campuses), and my father earned his law degree (from UW-Madison). When we talk with our parents about this topic, they clearly recognize the opportunities that college provided for them and they most certainly encouraged and supported us along the way.

Throughout our careers, we have helped many first-generation college students navigate college. For them, there was an additional challenge of coming from families who had little to no familiarity with college. Some of our greatest rewards have come from seeing many first-generation college students succeed and benefit greatly from their investments. To us, there is no question that the return on investment is most certainly worth it.


Thomas Pleger is President of Lake Superior State University. He earned his BS in Political Science and minored in Anthropology/Archaeology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and his MA and PhD in Anthropology/Archaeology from UW-Madison. Teresa Pleger, his spouse, is also an educator. She earned her BS in Health Education, minoring in Psychology and her Master of Education (MEPD), from UW-La Crosse. Tom Pleger currently serves on Michigan’s 21st Century Economy Commission, a governor-appointed committee that is currently working on a report to position Michigan for its future.

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Open Letter to campus and both Sault Ste. Marie communities


(What follows is an open letter from Lake Superior State University President Tom Pleger to LSSU and both Sault Ste. Marie communities)

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – Lake Superior State University opened its doors over 70 years ago under the GI Bill in 1946. At that time, it was an access institution founded as a branch college to serve returning World War II veterans. From its historic Fort Brady roots, LSSU has grown to offer a wide array of academic programs, extracurricular programs, and community outreach programming.

Today, public higher education is changing at an unparalleled pace. Lake State continues to be an institution that provides outstanding value and access to higher education opportunities, not only for our students, but also for the communities we serve. However, we need to look toward the future and plan accordingly to position LSSU to meet the demands of Michigan and the region’s future needs.

As we look to the future, LSSU is positioning itself for long-term sustainability and growth, a focus on excellence, a continuous mode of academic program review and update, and a plan for maintaining and enhancing our facilities. We are moving ahead with a new health care Simulation Center in partnership with War Memorial (our local hospital), and we are in the engineering assessment and planning stages for the new Center for Freshwater Research and Education facility. We are also developing long-term infrastructure plans for upgrading aging facilities and systems for lighting, electricity, information technology, and building climate control.

This spring, we opened a newly renovated South Hall as home for the Lukenda School of Business. The new R. W. Considine Hall (formally South Hall), which has its formal rededication on April 21, will also serve other disciplines and will become another community focal point on the LSSU campus and the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Lake State has also launched a new shared governance and strategic planning process focused on Culture, Academics, Finances, and Enrollment (CAFÉ). We have created a strategic committee for each of the institutional core CAFÉ areas with membership from across the campus. Each strategic committee is charged with setting goals, outcomes, and assessment of progress in each of their respective areas. Together, we are working to build an even better institution that is focused on excellence in all areas of its operations.

LSSU is in the final stages of completing its Higher Learning Commission (HLC) regional reaccreditation process. All recognized universities in the US go through a regional reaccreditation process on regular intervals. This process is guided by peer review of a compliance report, assurance argument, and a campus visitation by a team of colleagues to verify the quality and health of our institution. I have been through numerous reaccreditations and always find it to be an outstanding opportunity to foster institutional excellence. In early March, we received a favorable HLC review and LSSU has been reaccredited. LSSU will continue on the Standard Pathway for future reaccreditation reviews. In a separate communication, we learned that our Change Request to offer a Master of Business Administration (MBA) program was not approved at this time. Rather, the HLC provided a road map of steps to be taken by the institution to garner such approval, issues included faculty qualifications and scholarship/professional development, and policies and practices for graduate education.

That said, reaccreditation reports always offer recommendations for improvement. We expect ours to focus on LSSU’s excellent hands-on experiences along with suggestions to improve diversity, assessment processes, program review, and to improve our faculty-staff evaluations of scholarship, research, and teaching. These recommendations will serve as a roadmap to guide the institution over the next five to ten years in our planning, evaluation, and assessment of all operations and programs.

In addition to LSSU planning, I have spent these last several months serving on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Economy Commission. The commission, which serves through June, is charged with developing a master plan for Michigan’s future economy 20 years out and beyond. We have been busy meeting across the state and I am pleased that higher education has been a major focus of our discussions in addition to other key aspects of Michigan’s future.

By all accounts, post-secondary education will be more important than ever for Michiganders. Our state will depend upon a workforce and talent pool that is creative, adaptive, flexible, analytical, and understand math and science; that can connect and understand wide-ranging types of information and data as well as relate to and connect with people in a global context. Future economies will be knowledge-based, and LSSU will play an even greater role in shaping the EUP, Michigan, and the region.