The Value of an Appalachian Education

Our Distinguished Alumni weigh in

As both college graduates and non-graduates strike out on their own, the reality of limited job opportunities hits home. National college debt is at an all-time high. In traditional and social media, on campuses nationwide and in general conversation, American college students and graduates are asking themselves tough questions about the value of their college education. 

Appalachian State University has educated generations of students in the liberal arts tradition.  What does this mean for our graduates, who likely do not learn the same skills acquired in a trade school or technical college? How does this kind of education prepare our graduates for success in the job market and in life?

Recently, we talked with three of our most successful alumni, each a recipient of Appalachian’s Distinguished Alumni Award. The three have different backgrounds and careers but each relates important lessons learned at Appalachian that have provided a framework from which to establish personal and professional success.

Major General Edward M. Reeder Jr.

Major General Edward M. Reeder Jr. ’81

When I look back at my time at Appalachian and at the attributes we look for in a Special Forces soldier, a lot of it’s the same. Students learn similar attributes, and then mature and use them, in our case, as a Special Forces soldier.

Some of the things students learn at Appalachian that we also look for are: being an adaptive leader, developing strong competencies and capabilities, personal responsibility and integrity, moral courage, professionalism, and of course teamwork. It doesn’t matter what you are doing, it takes teamwork to succeed.

Whether you’re on the battlefield or in college, there isn’t always going to be a right answer. A lot of it is scenario-based. It’s a learning experience, and it’s not always black and white. There’s some grey there, and you have to figure out how that works. You’ve got to be a critical thinker about everything, so you can solve complex problems.

I think the attributes we look for are some of the same attributes that a young person gains through the learning experience at Appalachian State. Students there are developing those kinds of critical skills before they graduate.

Reeder is the commanding general of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, the Army’s Special Operations Center of Excellence at Fort Bragg. He earned Appalachian’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2013.


Dr. Harry L. Williams

Dr. Harry L. Williams ’86 ’88 ’95

There is real value to earning a degree from Appalachian. As a first-generation college student, I wouldn’t be where I am now had it not been for the foundation I got at Appalachian State. The value of being an educated person is the ability to look at a challenge and turn it into an opportunity to do something great, so the challenge of succeeding after graduation can be overcome.

Coming from a liberal arts background and working at a rising research institution is interesting. My background in communication, and building relationships with people from different backgrounds, is really important. At Delaware State, we have students and professors from 33 states and 26 foreign countries. In terms of diversity and background, race, gender, you name it — we have it here. Building solid relationships is important to being successful in your career and in life.  

Appalachian is strategically positioned for its graduates to be successful because of the quality that’s associated with an Appalachian degree. Employers, myself included, hire Appalachian graduates because we place value on an Appalachian degree. So, Appalachian graduates have options, they have opportunities. In my mind, they have a competitive advantage because of the quality of their education.

Williams is president of Delaware State University in Dover, Del. He earned Appalachian’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2013.


Stephen J. Dubner

Stephen J. Dubner ’84

At Appalachian I learned how to make stuff.  I always wanted to make something. I didn’t know what it was going to be, exactly, but in order to learn how to do that, you have to be in a place where you’re not always looking over your shoulder, where you feel encouragement, where you feel surrounded by other people who have the same desires.

What I love about Appalachian is it was a great concentration of energy and smarts and ambition in a very peaceful, rural place. Going to Appalachian for me was learning to have the metabolism to be someone who was going to produce something. From students and professors, that’s what I learned – that it’s OK to think, “I think I’ll make a movie. I think I’ll be in a band and try to make a record. I think I’ll write books.”

We know that people come to college to learn things — they learn facts, they learn figures, they learn procedure, they learn protocols. But the best economists in the field tell us that there’s a lot of value created at places like Appalachian. You take students and you turn them into more productive, healthier, happier people. It strikes me as some sort of wild, wonderful alchemy.

Dubner is the award-winning author of the worldwide best-seller “Freakonomics.” He is a journalist, TV personality and host of the popular “Freakonomics Radio” podcast. He earned Appalachian’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2012.