President Obama’s call for a renewed emphasis on "affordability and value" in assessing colleges and universities pairs those two terms in a way that simultaneously highlights their difference and the degree to which they have become interchangeable in much of the current discourse about higher education. There is a growing consensus within the higher ed community that we need to do a better job of "defining the value proposition" of liberal arts education. There is less agreement, however, about what is meant by "value."
Media reports like the ongoing New York Times series "Degrees of Debt" are quickly solidifying a public perception of the value of an education as a straightforward calculation of a graduate’s future earnings minus cost of attendance. Even if we set aside the compelling arguments one can make for the intrinsic and civic value of a liberal arts education, and stick with an economic cost/benefit analysis, such an equation fails to capture the complex feedback loop that is higher education finance. In particular, it ignores the degree to which value is affected by demand, and demand is affected by many of the very qualities that contribute most significantly to cost.
Three reports that have come out within the last month provide an interesting cross-section of the issues. In early January, a panel discussion at AAC&U on "The Economics of the Liberal Arts College" included the presentation of data from Charles Blaich and colleagues at the Wabash Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts claiming that less expensive colleges offer more "bang for the buck" than do higher-priced institutions. On January 10, Moody’s released a report offering a "negative outlook" on the entire higher education sector, citing in particular "weakened pricing power and enrollment pressure." And finally, a study by two University of Michigan economists published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, contrary to popular belief, investing in the "consumption amenities" that are so often derided by commentators in fact heightened demand and increased value for less selective colleges — i.e., made economic sense.
Most commentaries on the high cost of higher education assume as a matter of course that student demand will correlate positively with affordability. In fact, despite the current storm of criticism, demand remains high at many of the most expensive colleges, most of which offer generous financial aid. Since level of student demand is one of the major inputs driving the perceived quality and pricing power of a school, any calculation of "value" needs to recognize that economic value is not synonymous with low price. On the contrary, where high price is matched by high demand, the two reinforce each other, as high demand justifies high price, and high price reflects a level of demand that contributes to reputation.
There are several flaws in the claim that in higher education, economic value = future earnings – price paid:
It assumes that one can discuss "higher ed" as a unified sector, whereas institutions and curriculums differ hugely, and student backgrounds and preferences vary just as greatly. The "value" of a particular degree is not an absolute; it is relative to the goals of the individual student. What may make one college “worth it” for one student may not be equally valuable to another.
It assumes that higher education functions as a product, which consumers are likely to want to buy at the best available price. In reality, higher education is an investment, and many consumers understand that they are not buying a four-year experience; they are investing in the future value of their diploma. Hence, the college’s desirability and reputation are relevant economic factors that need to be taken into account, and any reduction in services or "amenities" that decreases desirability may have a negative impact. Any development officer will tell you that alumni support the institution not only to enhance the education of current students, but because a stronger institution increases the prestige attached to the education they themselves received.
It assumes that affordability is an easily defined variable that can be listed and compared, whereas different financial aid policies at each institution, and different financial situations of individual students, make the actual "cost" of each institution highly variable.
It assumes a clear distinction between the "education" offered at a college and the nonessential "amenities" that could presumably be easily discarded. But the residential college experience does not divide neatly into two columns, with professors’ salaries on one side, and climbing walls and "nap pods" on the other. The primary value of the residential college is in its integration of academic and co-curricular activities within a 24/7 learning environment that fosters growth inside and outside the classroom. Pulling apart these strands would significantly diminish the educational experience. Most students would not consider music ensembles, career placement, counseling services, and volunteer opportunities, for example, to be "amenities." And, as I have argued elsewhere, support of faculty research is not strictly speaking an instructional cost, yet the presence of tenure-track faculty who conduct research is an important marker of institutional prestige that contributes to a college’s value.
It assumes that when students and families complain that college is too expensive, that means that they want colleges to cut costs, i.e., change the way they operate. However, all of the facilities and services that colleges have been competing to provide are the result of student demand for those services, and one seldom hears about campuses where students are lobbying to have them reduced. Families seeking less-expensive options may well choose a college that allows the student to live at home, but those who choose a residential college experience for their student don’t want those colleges to offer a "cheaper" education. They want a bigger discount on the education they are receiving. This would require increased public funding, or increased endowment.
Ultimately, many families understand what many higher ed commentators do not: that the link between price and “value” in college tuitions is already so tenuous as to seem wholly arbitrary. This is not because colleges get away with charging too much. It is because they already charge too little. The market price of a product is always somewhat arbitrary, as it reflects what people are willing to pay rather than a product’s actual production cost, let alone some intrinsic value. But what other commodity is routinely offered at a cost substantially less than the price of production, and then discounted again based on the consumer’s ability to pay? At the most expensive colleges, the cost per student is thousands higher than the tuition price, and the endowment already subsidizes every single student, even those paying “full freight.”
In thinking about where money plays into our understanding of the value of the education provided by a college, we might line up cost, price, and prestige, and picture them as points along a continuum. At the cost end, we have the full monetary value of an education, that is, actual funds expended to provide it; next, a tuition fee that partially reflects cost, but also reflects the other resources available to subsidize it, as well as the market’s willingness to pay; and finally, the value publicly attributed to the education provided, a value that may be realized by the owner of a diploma when he or she gets a job or other benefit based in part on the prestige of the college he or she attended.
The progression from concrete funds expended to abstract benefit gained gradually transfers economic value from the institution to the student. Over time, the value of the investment made is more than recouped (and recent studies show that this continues to be the case). Finally, in a feedback loop that is unique to higher education, the owner of this investment may ultimately return value to the institution, either by donating funds, or by enhancing the college’s reputation through his or her own success. Thus, tuition paid is not complete payment for a discrete good or service, but partial payment towards a lifelong investment.
By framing this argument in economic terms, I am not buying into the notion that the primary value of an education is economic, but trying to show the limitations of that analysis. We all recognize that we must work as efficiently as possible to focus our resources on our core missions. But we also need to recognize that lowering costs does not always increase value. Given all of the commentary over the last decade about the increasing elitism of higher education -- the challenges of gaining admission to top institutions, the increasing competition among institutions to move up in the U.S. News rankings — I find it astonishingly naive to imagine that public perception of the “value” of an education from a particular college is not affected by its perceived status. And one thing that we all know from the U.S. News wars is that status comes at a high cost. No one ever rose in the rankings by increasing class size, paying their faculty less, or hiring fewer fund-raisers.
All the more reason, then, to refocus the discussion on the multiple forms of value, tangible and intangible, that can be derived from a college education, rather than imagining value can be reduced to a single measure. If the price tag of a college education represented its real value, then a fully funded fellowship to Harvard University would result in a worthless degree.
The real value of an education lies in a unique nexus of opportunity and effort that produces a different outcome for every student. Rather than using imperfect mechanisms of accountability to tighten the link between affordability and value, our task should be to loosen it, and generate the resources needed to give all students access to the education that best serves their individual talents and aspirations. That would be value added.
Alison Byerly holds an interdisciplinary appointment as college professor at Middlebury College, and is currently a visiting scholar in literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In July, she will become the 17th president of Lafayette College.
After this winter’s National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities meeting, the challenge voiced by a panel of Congressional staff members still rings in my ears. They asked: What is the return on investment for the $150 billion in federal grants, loans, and tax credits to higher education?
They suggested that this investment must have a pay-off measurable in the number of degrees completed, jobs attained, and salaries earned. It’s not only members of Congress and President Obama who want to know the value of a degree. The public – as reported in media coverage – also questions the cost of a college education, the debt incurred, the prospects for a job to pay off that debt, and whether recent graduates are employed, underemployed, or moving back home.
More urgently these days, colleges need to answer the question: Is it worth the cost? Just after President Obama’s State of the Union address, the White House released a “scorecard” on college performance measured by cost, graduation rates, borrowing, loan default rates and employment statistics. The public deserves to know these figures but the criteria do not go far enough in defining the value of a college degree.
The questions raised by politicians, policy makers, and parents remind me of another question, one not considered in the NAICU briefings: Are colleges and universities fulfilling their civic mission? What if we redefined “worth”? What if we could measure the return that educated citizens give to each other and the nation?
We need to redefine what the “return” means. We claim that we produce the inquiring, analytical, vocal, and engaged citizens required for a vital democratic system, but do we present the civic value of our missions forcefully enough to enter into and even change the public discourse?
I propose that colleges create a new Civic Scale, which does two things: 1) analyzes our courses, independent studies, and community activities to determine to what extent we teach democratic behaviors; 2) and surveys our alumni at various stages of their lives to determine if they are demonstrating key civic attributes.
What might we measure while students are undergraduates? There would be measures of history, political science and cultural studies courses that give students perspectives on our own democracy and other systems; humanities and arts courses that develop awareness of others’ lives and cultures; engaged learning and internships that develop skills in community organizing and instill knowledge about the competing forces in a democracy; and campus participation, where students practice voicing reasoned opinions and helping each other.
We should survey our alumni at least every five years to ask questions like:
Do you vote; how often?
Do you volunteer with a community organization?
Have you run for office?
Have you written to someone in elected office or published a letter to the editor?
Do you give to your favorite causes?
Do you attend civic meetings or organize to make change?
Do you participate in your children’s schools?
Do you attend cultural or other events that strengthen your community’s life?
Do you work for a nonprofit or an organization focused on education, the arts or social justice?
After college, did you join the Peace Corps or Teach for America?
We may find out that the more civically engaged students are also those who are the informed activists of today. Their behavior may even correlate with both economic success and the more elusive “pursuit of happiness.”
I’m an example of this interconnection, a product of a “liberating arts” education: a B.A. in philosophy from Bennington College, my M.F.A. in creative writing from Warren Wilson College, and a daily participant in the life of Marlboro College. My first job out of college was with the fledgling state arts agency, followed by 21 years in Washington as Senator Patrick J. Leahy’s chief of staff, deputy assistant to President Clinton and then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and founding director of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. The thinking, writing, and creative skills I learned prepared me for decades of service in the public arena.
Some colleges and their associations, such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities, are already working to define civic engagement and its relationship to student success and the demonstration of leadership skills. Dickinson College surveyed alumni and found, for example, that nearly 90 percent participated in volunteer work and 95 percent made a financial contribution to a nonprofit organization. At Marlboro College, students, faculty and staff convene monthly in a Town Meeting to discuss and decide the standards by which we conduct our community life together at this small liberal arts college. Students learn to present their arguments cogently and persuasively; they also learn to challenge a point with which they disagree with evidence and reasoning. These are valuable skills for practicing democracy.
My challenge, especially to leaders of liberal arts colleges, is twofold: to devise the attributes that belong in a Civic Scale and to join Marlboro College in creating one to highlight this crucial aspect of our mission.
Many leaders of liberal arts colleges and some other institutions are disappointed by the new College Scorecard from the Obama administration, observing that its measures leave out much of the true value of a higher education. But it’s not enough for us to say we think our model of education produces value. We need to start to analyze and measure outcomes beyond income if we are to challenge the idea that institutions should be judged primarily by how much their graduates earn one year after graduation.
Our democracy is threatened today by lack of participation by all segments of our society, including our optimistic and energetic young people. Corporate and secret money looms over our elections. The narrowing of media outlets means that it’s harder to find the tough investigative journalism and information that shine light on government policies and elected officials’ behaviors.
At a time when we must reanimate our democracy, let’s cooperate on a Civic Scale that shows the profound value of educating our future citizens. We want our students to thrive in their lives; that means finding jobs and supporting families. It must also, however, include finding meaning in life in service to others and to the country.
We must redefine “return on investment” to include civic behaviors that support our diverse and participatory democracy. As Thomas Jefferson said, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people."
Ellen McCulloch-Lovell is president of Marlboro College, in Vermont.