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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Down With ROI

How about we make the return on a degree worth it for everyone and stop buying into metrics that harm those who most need additional resources?

February 24, 2022

I do not remember the first time I saw the term ROI (return on investment) used as a measurement on the value of a college degree, but whenever it was, we did a bad, bad thing and we should stop it.

I feel confident that as long as we believe ROI is not just a, but the, legitimate metric by which to measure the value of postsecondary education, we will be trapped in a mind-set that makes it impossible to see beyond the undoubtedly messed-up way we resource higher education in this country.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if access, opportunity and advancement is the mission, our current system is structured all wrong.

ROI was definitely not a thing when I went to college, at least not for an upper-middle-class suburban white kid like me. College was an assumed next step, and the notion that it wouldn’t be worth the cost—much more reasonable at the time[1]—was absurd. The risk of not going to college and falling backward was far higher. Doing the math on ROI would’ve seemed ridiculous, like doing the ROI on the effect on your cholesterol between running a 5-K and eating a McDonald’s extra value meal.

But now, ROI is an important measurement as we’re provided data on which schools and majors are most likely to “pay off.”

Of course, concerns about ROI do not apply to elite institutions, or to students like I was at the time, the fortunate people of the world who can afford the cost of tuition without accruing debt. This is a smaller universe than back in my day, and some of these folks may change their behavior at the margins when assessing costs, but even then the ROI of the degree is assumed.

And they are correct to do so, because if you can afford the degree without loans, your post-college life will be much easier. Of course, you were on the glide path to success before, so that’s not a surprise. The degree merely helps maintain that trajectory.

ROI seems popular among people who never had to worry about such things and yet believe it’s sensible to subject others to its logic. ROI in theory is meant to determine who deserves support.

Here’s my answer: everyone.

I am tempted to discuss some of the obvious limits of the data on ROI and how it is interpreted and presented, but I do not want to go there because it admits that ROI is something we should take seriously, rather than recognizing that it is merely a bar that must be cleared only by institutions that are under resourced.[2]

It seems perverse to starve institutions meant to serve the public and then judge them on how effective they are at surviving on their limited calories. What if we tried feeding everyone instead?

Public education is infrastructure belonging in the same category as our roads, bridges, utilities, municipal services, parks, libraries and everything else we need to have a society that is shared, inhabitable, nondystopian.

It is certainly possible to do purely economic analyses of what happens when infrastructure breaks down, and those big numbers of lost economic activity will loom large and seem impressive, but they are abstractions that fail to capture the whole truth. When the Texas power grid couldn’t handle cold weather, leaving millions without electricity, that wasn’t a problem because economic activity was being curtailed, but because people were freezing.[3]

Reducing the ROI on a degree to one’s salary is a ridiculous flattening of what is meaningful about the opportunity of education. In terms of “returns,” the most important thing that happened to me in college was meeting the woman I am married to. What value should I put on 30 years of love and companionship?

I hope it’s something, because arguably, this partnering has cost me quite a bit personally when it comes to the economic return on my degree, because we’ve chosen to follow her career, requiring me to periodically reinvent myself, severing ties to one path to start another. I took a 60 percent pay cut when we left Chicago in 2001 and started teaching again at the University of Illinois.

By spending nearly 20 years teaching off the tenure track, my earnings were severely constrained, a condition made possible because my partner made a good wage. When we left Greenville, S.C., and moved to Charleston in 2011, I officially had an income of $0.

It would be a lie to say I’ve loved every minute of my work, but all things considered, I consider myself enormously fortunate to have spent a good portion of my adult life doing things that I am interested in while earning enough to contribute to my household’s overall financial security.

How do we calculate that trade-off—income for freedom, or happiness?

I’m incredibly fortunate in that I personally don’t have to worry about it. I’m good. But I’ve spent the majority of my career among people—both students and fellow contingent faculty—who are not as fortunate, who do not have the backstop, who must be subjected to the calculus of ROI.

My wish is to make ROI irrelevant for all students, to make the benefit of postsecondary education as clear and obvious as it was for fortunate people like me, to provide the freedom to choose a path through life that is not constrained by crushing debt or lost opportunities.

Is that really too much to ask? Isn’t that what we say we’re already offering?

[1] Four years’ tuition at the University of Illinois, all in, was under $10,000 (Class of 1992).

[2] I’m talking about public, not-for-profit institutions here. For-profits are a different ball of wax.

[3] Interestingly, the failure was a boon to the actual power companies, who jacked up their rates based on the increased demand from the cold—up until the system failed, of course.


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