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Dave Skoloda: College education brings sweet rewards

January 2, 2019
Dave Skoloda

What’s the value of a college degree? That’s a question that has been raised in recent years as costs of higher education have climbed and political support for public universities, including the University of Wisconsin System, has waned.

Depending on the source of the commentary, a college education is overpriced and vocational education is offered as an alternative or, as Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber put it: “How could anyone think we need fewer college graduates?” He cited the many benefits, both economic and lifestyle in a 2018 commencement speech.

I was mulling this during the recent holidays in connection with my quest to find a recipe for a Norwegian treat given to me about 60 years ago by Orla Knutson along with her firm advice about going to college.

She was the mother of my friend, Mark, who sometimes hadn’t finished his piano lesson when I stopped to pick him up on the way to high school a few blocks away.

So while I waited, Orla and I would talk, sometimes while she operated a mangle ironing sheets or while she cleaned up from breakfast.

Sometimes she would offer me the slightly sweet treat I now know as kringla. Always she would question me about school. Since graduation was near she asked me about my plans for college. I told her that I wasn’t sure I would go to college.

“You will go to college,” she said emphatically. Orla was a commanding presence. So, while it wasn’t quite that simple, I did. I’m a first-of-the-family college graduate with a public university background — University of Minnesota and graduate school at Madison.

Over the many years, I have always associated Orla’s advice with the comforting good taste of kringla. But for all those years I misspelled it as klingla so my searches for a recipe went nowhere.

Then last month, my column-writing cousin, Anne, wrote in the Alden (Minn.) Advance, about kringla. Bingo. Google and YouTube offered dozens of recipes and videos about making it.

So on Christmas Eve day, I made a batch of kringla. In the spirit of lifetime learning, I rolled globs of the sticky dough into pencil-slender strands to twist into pretzel shapes, and thought about Orla and the value of a college education.

I agree with Eisgruber’s assessment that a college education “equips you to respond to the changes — to yourself, and to the world — that inevitably occur over a lifetime.”

That has certainly been the case for Gretchen and me as we have taken our liberal arts backgrounds and shifted from our early jobs out of college and Navy to become entrepreneurs and work in community organizations as volunteers.

He also noted that while it would be good if more people could get vocational education it would also be good if even more could go to college.

“On average, all degrees in all fields from all colleges generate an annual return between 9 percent and 16 percent, and this return is supplemented by additional benefits to health, happiness and the quality of life. How could anyone think we need fewer college graduates?”

That is a lifetime advantage, however, and not an immediate return.

So, critics who want fewer college degrees need to think differently, he says. “They focus almost entirely on the price of college and on the salaries students might earn in their first jobs. That is a mistake.... The idea that we would be better off with fewer college graduates is a short-term swindle, a swindle that would cheat America’s young people, weaken the nation’s economy, and undermine our future. We need to have the confidence to invest in our young people and to ensure that a college education is accessible and affordable for students from all backgrounds and financial circumstances.”

Orla believed in the benefits of college education, and, now, so do I. Wisconsin needs to reinvest in its public universities and make college more affordable.

Orla, who died in 1982, continues to support college education; she and her late husband Melford S. Knutson created an endowed scholarship at St. Olaf College.

I’ll always be grateful for her encouragement to go to college. Kringla was a bonus, just as good as I remember.

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