Kathryn Jolley said she was 27, going through a divorce and feeling "kind of beaten down" when she set foot on the La Roche College campus as a freshman in the late 1970s.
At first, she was so timid that she fretted about where to sit in the cafeteria and whether the checkout person would demand a meal ticket or accept another form of payment.
But something happened as Ms. Jolley worked toward her bachelor's degree in interior design. She joined groups, counseled other students, made presentations -- and gained confidence in herself.
"Nobody would call me shy now. Nobody," said Ms. Jolley, an owner of DRS Architects, Downtown, and a member of La Roche's board of trustees.
A college education can cost tens of thousands of dollars and consume four or more years of a person's life.
What does one get for that? For many, the answer is much more than a diploma and preparation for work in a particular field.
Studies have shown that college graduates make more money, feel better about themselves, vote more often and have other advantages over people who lack post-secondary education.
In addition to knowledge and personal growth, college also can have a financial benefits for some graduates.
Here's how the median annual earnings compare by education level:
Education level Median annual earnings
High school graduate $27,963
Some college, no degree $31,947
Associate degree $36,399
Bachelor's degree $48,097
Master's degree $58,522
Professional degree $87,775
Doctorate degree $80,776
Note: The median is the point at which half in the category earn more than and half earn below the figure. Numbers are for people 25 years old and older in 2008.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2009 Annual Social and Economic Supplement.
The college experience sparks lifelong friendships and gives students opportunities to begin building professional networks. In and outside of the classroom, students develop confidence, communication, problem-solving and teamwork skills, the so-called "soft skills" highly valued by employers but just as relevant to other parts of a person's life.
If early adolescence is a time of growth spurts, the college years bring comparable jumps in personal development.
"I'm more open-minded than I've ever been," said James Jermany, a Robert Morris University sophomore, crediting the daily interaction with peers from diverse backgrounds.
For some, such as Ms. Jolley, college is nothing short of a life-changing experience. She said La Roche lifted her up and helped her to see her potential.
"I never thought I'd be doing what I'm doing," said Ms. Jolley, whose clients include federal agencies, laboratories, resorts and universities.
The federal government and various education advocacy groups are calling for more people to go to college, partly for economic and national security reasons and partly because they consider a degree critical to an individual's success in the 21st-century labor market.
High schools around the nation are focused on the goal of making all students "college-ready."
Yet the question of what one should get out of a college education hasn't been definitively answered, and colleges themselves sometimes wrestle with their role.
The global, technical, volatile economy has blurred the lines between liberal-arts and career-oriented degree programs. Philip Gardner, director of Michigan State University's Collegiate Employment Research Institute, said today's employers want a "liberally trained technician or a technically trained liberal arts person."
Among other soft skills, college graduates should develop adaptability, in case strapped employers want to move them from position to position, Dr. Gardner said.
Students such as Mr. Jermany are savvy to the interplay of technical know-how and people skills.
"It's one thing to know what you're doing," he said. "But even if you know what you're doing, you have to be able to communicate with the people you're working with."
As president of the Software Engineering Club at Robert Morris, Mr. Jermany will oversee an annual enrichment event for local high school students. In the workplace, he noted, that's called "project management," another soft skill.
In April, Lumina Foundation for Education announced an unusual effort to pin down what students in six disciplines -- biology, chemistry, education, graphic design, history and physics -- should gain from a college education. The project, called Tuning USA, is based on a European initiative.
Lumina is bringing together educators, employers and students from Indiana, Minnesota and Utah to agree on the knowledge and skills that should be acquired by students majoring in each discipline.
Traditionally, colleges have awarded degrees based on credits earned, rather than knowledge or skills acquired.
Mr. Jermany felt the tug of inquiry when he first saw a roomful of Robert Morris computer equipment and realized it was there for his use -- no professor's permission required.
"The opportunity is there. You just have to capitalize on it," he said.
La Roche junior Henry Pinnix said the college experience is "a journey. You want to discover who you are as a person, a student, a friend."
Mr. Pinnix said he discovered his leadership ability as student government president at La Roche. He said he's learned that persistence pays off, that each new day is an opportunity to "be the best version of yourself," and that college is a forge for morals and values.
Ms. Jolley said she learned that "it was OK not to know everything, but how to research and how to ask questions and how to find out what you want to know."
Sometimes, the journey's lessons reveal themselves long after commencement.
Ms. Jolley took an accounting course and thought at the time that it was "the dumbest thing I possibly could have done." Now, responsible for client budgets and her company's bottom line, she uses those accounting skills "all the time."
About six years ago, a group of researchers contemplated Plato and Socrates and scoured college mission statements to develop a list of the benefits associated with a liberal arts education, said Kathleen Wise, associate director of inquiries at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind.
That effort evolved into the Wabash National Study, an effort to track students' development in about a dozen areas -- including critical thinking, leadership and moral reasoning -- from matriculation through their senior years. The study, so far involving more than 17,000 students at 49 institutions, hopes to identify teaching practices that contribute to development of the key qualities.
Students are evaluated at the beginning and end of their freshman year and again as seniors. The first group of seniors -- those who entered college in fall 2006 -- will be tested this spring.
Tests have shown that the freshmen, as groups, showed little development in the key areas during their first year of college. However, some individual students made big gains, Ms. Wise said.
"We are very eager to see what happens in the senior year, especially because were somewhat disappointed by the first-year results," she said.
Even with a college degree, graduates have to hustle to get and keep jobs in today's economy. Michigan State University's 2009 employment survey found that hiring at 2,500 sample companies and institutions was off 40 percent last year.
Adaptability is important for more than one reason.
Because each economic downtown tends to decimate one or more industries, flexibility will help graduates find new careers, said Dewayne Matthews, vice president for policy and strategy at Lumina Foundation.
"You lose a job; you're going to go back to a different job," he said.
Joe Smydo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1548.