Roger Ferguson Addresses Michigan State Graduates and Three Misconceptions of a College Education

In a commencement speech before thousands of advanced-degree graduates of Michigan State University, TIAA-CREF president and CEO, Roger Ferguson, shared observations based on his own career as an attorney, McKinsey consultant, Federal Reserve Board Vice Chairman, and private sector executive. Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder, spoke at the MSU undergraduate ceremony. Both men received an honorary doctorate from the university.

According to Ferguson, three common misconceptions about the purpose of a college education can make it tougher for graduates to adapt and succeed in a changing world.

Misconception No. 1: College is about getting a job and maximizing your earnings.

“The goal is not to just go out and pursue the highest salary you can get. Not that there’s anything wrong with a high salary, per se – especially in light of the loans that many students have to take out.

But financial rewards should not be your top priority in figuring out how to best put your human capital to use.

We saw in the financial crisis what happens when people – and companies – put the pursuit of money at the center of what they do – to the exclusion of what’s best for employees, customers, shareholders, and society at large. Our nation is still struggling to deal with the fallout from those narrow, self-interested choices.

I challenge you to figure out how to apply your human capital in a way that honors the best in you while maintaining a perspective broader than just your own self-interest.”

Misconception No. 2: The way to get ahead is to climb the “career ladder.”

“There’s really no such thing as a career ladder anymore. The term ‘career ladder’ implies that you get on somewhere near the bottom and start climbing in a straight line toward the top. It also implies that you know exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life. The world just doesn’t work like that anymore, if it ever really did.

Instead, what we have today is more like a ‘career climbing wall.’ Your goal is still to get to the top, but sometimes you need to go sideways and you might even have to move down to make progress.

The point is, the climb is anything but a straight line. Be open to trying different things. Don’t be afraid to change course if that’s what your heart is telling you to do. Take advantage of opportunities that come your way.

I urge you to think of your career as a journey. Figure out what you like to do, where you like to do it, and with whom you like to do it. Recognize that at different points in your life, you may answer those questions differently.

Recognize that life will sometimes throw you curveballs. If you break free of the career ladder mentality, you will be able to respond more flexibility to the unexpected detours that come your way.

Misconception No. 3: Graduation marks the end of your education.

“If you want to be successful, see your life as a continuous education. Today’s world is changing faster than any of us could have imagined. Globalization, technology, demographic forces, economic challenges – all are reshaping our nation and our world.

But if you see yourself as a lifelong learner, you will feel more confident about your ability to handle the changes that will inevitably come your way. You will know that you have the potential to continuously grow and evolve your human capital to align with the new realities, whatever they may be.

Continuous education doesn’t necessarily mean being in a classroom – it’s more a state of mind. Let me give you an example: When I arrived at the Federal Reserve in 1997, I had already achieved some career success. But I joined with the mindset that I had a lot to learn – and I resolved to learn everything I could. So during my first year, I would get into the office early, at around six or six-thirty, and read everything that came across my desk. I mean everything.

I also asked tons of questions, probably annoying my colleagues to no end. And I asked to continue the kind of staff briefings I had when I was preparing for my confirmation testimony before Congress. I took on many committee assignments, some of them glamorous and some not, some high-profile and some not, some coveted and some not. In each case, there was a chance for me to learn something about the system or the economy, and to contribute in ways that were fairly broad.

I worked hard to develop an expertise about the institution, its history, its challenges, its direction. And I believe it’s one reason I was honored by being asked to take on the role of Vice Chairman a year or so into my tenure.

You will be most successful when you think of yourself as a lifelong learner – and conduct yourself accordingly – in whatever it is you’re doing.”

Read the full text of Roger Ferguson's speech»


© 2014 and prior years, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association - College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF), New York, NY 10017