I participated in a panel recently, on the value of a college education. We had some spirited conversations, and each topic was worthy of having its space in the universe, where we could dedicate the appropriate time and energy to explore the topic, in great detail. On this panel, we began the conversation discussing the value of a college education, from an economic standpoint. This particular conversation is as important, as it is multi-faceted. For, can we really put a price tag on how valuable the college experience is for students? Here is just one, often overlooked perspective, on the economic value of a college education.
When I hear, what is the value of college education, I sense others are approaching college as a traditional investment, a bunch of facts and figures, dividends and portfolios, and ultimately, whether there is a return on the investment. But unlike stocks and bonds, the college experience is made up of people – individuals with ever-changing thoughts and values, interests and ideas. So the investment comparison isn’t quite apples-to-apples, because bonds are not living beings with career aspirations, and students are not intangible entities that can be traded for the next hot commodity. But, if we must look at college as an investment, and are thus compelled to determine its value, let’s look at the college experience the way we look at buying a house.
Unlike most other investments, purchasing a house is not strictly a financial or economic decision. There is more to consider than simply can we afford the mortgage. Prospective home buyers will want to consider the school systems and neighborhoods, proximity to work, family, and highways, whether the roof needs replacing, and if there is mold in the walls. Most of all, prospective home buyers will want to take into account, does the house they are considering, feel like home. Not just a place where they will eat and sleep. But does the house feel like home, where they will want to raise kids and have holiday dinners. Does the house have a certain warmth or aura. Within seconds of stepping foot inside the house, does it feel like a place where they want to live. Is that something you can put a price tag on?
When it comes to buying a house, sure finances are important, but they don’t make the entire decision. For the right house, buyers will stretch beyond their means, so they can have the home of their dreams. On the flip side, just because the numbers work out, doesn’t mean the house is for you.
Like prospective home buyers, students should consider the emotional connection to college. That is, is this the school where they can foresee themselves learning and growing. Does the school’s values match their own. Is this the school where they want to be. Sure the price tag is important, but that should come further down the line. A school’s sticker price shouldn’t deter students from applying as there are scholarships, grants, and various forms of financial aid. Students will find that there are people, and companies, willing to invest in their future, thus making the value less financially taxing.
Just like there are houses for different income levels, so too are there colleges to meet different income levels. The conversation about financial aid and scholarship is important, but fit for another discussion. When students find the school of their dreams, instead of berating them with inquiries, asking them to second-guess their decisions, it’d be better to work with them, to create game plans for success, to take advantage of all the resources that school has to offer. There’s no way to put a price tag on students’ potential, and their ability maximize that potential, whether it manifests in the field of nursing, social work, or education. Helping students fulfill their dreams is the real value of a college education.
The college major is important. For the college graduate, it says this is what I studied…this is where my competencies lie…this is why I am employable. But, is the college major really a testament of all those things? Or is it just another box we push students into, telling them to check here, sign here, go here, shepherding them around, as if they are merely cattle.
As with most things, the actuality falls somewhere in the middle. The academic major is important, but it’s not all-encompassing.
While presenting a teacher’s convention recently, a handful of high school educators seemed shocked to find out that the academic major is also, just a matter of semantics.
Consider this body of research done by The Chronicle of Higher Education, where we find that 93% of the employers surveyed said that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major. They were not saying that a student’s major does not matter, but that, overwhelmingly, the thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills a job candidate has acquired in college are more important than the specific field in which the applicant earned a degree.”
Students who want to become lawyers will study law. Students who want to become nurses will study nursing. But, the student who studies law can go on to become a nurse, just as the student who studies English can go on to become a lawyer. Choosing an academic major, in many respects, has just as much to do with students’ occupational aspirations as it has to do with students’ passions. Yes, their passions. If a student loves to write, perhaps they should major in English or creative writing. Similarly, if a student absolutely loves math, perhaps they should major in math or accounting. It doesn’t mean these students will only be suited to be English teachers or accountants, respectively. They can also be doctors, legal advocates, or entrepreneurs.
In that same article, 95% employers surveyed said it was important that job candidates “demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.”
Those traits aren’t germane to specific majors or academic programs. So instead of forcing, steering, or nudging students to declare majors, instead, we should be helping them explore their passions and then challenge students to utilize their passions to develop integrity, cultural sensitivity, interpersonal communication skills, and a host of other traits employers seek in new employees. If students can successfully acquire those skills, the name of their academic major will become just a matter of semantics.
Everyone knows about the rising costs of college – I mean, the skyrocketing costs of college. College is damn expensive, and the costs just seem to keep rising. Well above the average inflation rates, in fact. In a ten year span – from 2003-2013 – one small, private, New England university increased its tuition by roughly $16,000. From roughly $20,000 in 2003, to over $36,000 2013. Ouch! Those figures are just for tuition and do not include costs for housing (which would add another $12,000 – on average, during those years), fees, books, and so on.
Another way of analyzing this trend is to compare it to another high-priced ticket – cars. This rise would be akin to the sticker price of a car being set at $20,000 in 2003, and that same car being sold at $36,000 in 2013. Updates and redesigns would not add $16,000 to a car’s value. A $16,000 increase, instead, would take you to a different car altogether – from an entry-level car to a mid-sized or luxury car. It sounds ludicrous (even, laughable) that a dealer would sell a car for $20,000 in one year, and then sell that same car for $36,000 ten years later. That’s not inflation, that’s beyond comprehension. But, colleges do it all the time.
With the skyrocketing costs of education, parents and students are beginning to wonder, is college worth the cost. With good reason, too! Is it worth paying over $50,000 for a degree – from a liberal arts institution, let’s say – when the economy is disastrous and college graduates are finding it exceedingly difficult to find employment? When, and even IF, students do find jobs in the fields they studied all those years, they may have a difficult time repaying the loans that paid for their education. So, why not just go into the workforce fresh out of high school, or even attempt a trade school? Why not choose the cheapest route to education? What is the draw of a college education when students are becoming increasingly fearful they will not find employment and will spend the rest of their lives paying off the years they spent in college?
The question is complex, but the answer is certainly not! Just because a person cannot afford to buy a luxury car doesn’t mean they should be without transportation. Similarly, just because students can’t afford one school’s hefty price tag doesn’t mean they should forgo their education.
Just like cars come in a plethora of makes, models, sizes, and features to meet the needs of different customers, colleges and universities also have a plethora of features that add to its costs: size of the school, how many degrees it offers; whether it offers residential living; private versus public funding; geographic location; setting and environment; social scene/climate; entrance requirements; and on, and on. These features all add to the school’s costs and, thus, should be taken into account when today’s financial-conscious students explore their needs. So just as consumers shop around for cars in their price ranges, students will also want to shop around for schools in their price range.
Not the advertised, or the sticker price, however. This isn’t the $50,000 tuition you see in small print on the college’s website. The price I’m referring to – the price that most students pay – is the price you get after taking into account financial aid and other such resources. This price will be different for each student, as every student will have a different set of financial circumstances, resources, and contributions. So, while that liberal arts school may show a $50,000 price tag, student A may pay $25,000 out-of-pocket, student B may pay $10,000 out-of-pocket, and student C may pay $45,000 out-of-pocket, all because of their unique financial circumstances. And you won’t know the actual price tag for the school until you have applied, been accepted, and applied for financial aid, scholarships, etc.
So, is college worth it? I would not only say yes, but hell yes! When students take a look into the cost of college, they’ll find the actual price students pay to attend college is oftentimes lower (much lower, for some students) than the price that is advertised, and that actual price can be a lot more manageable for students and families to cover. So even when a school costs $50,000 to attend, students don’t usually pay that $50,000 price. In this CNN article, the president of Arizona State University agrees.
What’s more, students have options. If finances are a real concern, students can choose which schools to which they’ll apply. Students can spend two years at a community college, before enrolling in a four-year institution. Or, students can apply to state schools, which (on average) have lower costs than private schools. For, not every student will, or needs to, apply to that liberal arts school, costing $50,000.
Also, on average, the annual salary for those with a college degree can be up to $20,000 greater than the annual salary for those without a college degree. So going to college greatly increases students’ ability to make more money, over their lifetimes.
Finally, my experience and expertise tells me that college IS also worth it because of the totality of the college experience, which we’ll discuss later. Meaning, whatever that end value is, the college experience (if done right) can equip students with the skills companies look for in new employees (e.g. thinking critical, communicating effectively, displaying cultural sensitivities), which makes students more marketable job candidates, stronger workers, and more enriched, personally.
So is college worth it, may be the wrong question. Instead, the better question to ask may be: Given all of the benefits of the college experience, how can we make college more affordable? Not just for students from affluent backgrounds. But for everyone. Not just for students from certain heritages, lineages, or legacies. But for everyone. How can we ensure that every student who wants to go to college can afford it?
Now that’s a question really worth the debate.