The annual amount families spent on college leveled off at about $21,000 after several years of decline, according to Sallie Mae survey, which finds families -- particularly high-income ones -- taking steps to limit their expenditures.
Jill (not her real name) has been a student in two of my classes and has a 4.0 grade point average. She writes for the campus newspaper, serves on the executive board of our university’s professional journalists organization and works a full-time job. With her exemplary writing and class attendance, she is easily one of the shining stars of our department.
She also comes to me at least once a semester for a cathartic cry.
Jill’s world comes crashing down on her often. Sometimes the pressure and time constraints get to her. Other times, there is an issue at home or with roommates.
But the underlying cause of her stress is an issue she tries to ignore in everything she does: Her parents think college is a waste of time.
Jill’s issues at home and all the time constraints that put pressure on her academics and her social life stem from the fact that she pays her own way through school, with only a small amount of help from student loans and scholarships.
Sometimes she will ask me or whichever professor or adviser she is confiding in that day the question that many of us are scared to ask ourselves: Is it worth it?
There are tons of self-made success stories of billionaires abandoning their college educations in the pursuit of grander things, a la Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. Their stories float around social media, distributed via Facebook memes, chain-letter emails, and Wikipedia entries, and they provide fodder for parents and teenagers who would rather not spend money on or fund four-plus years in a classroom when they could be out making a living and getting started with their occupations now.
And why wouldn’t they?
Jill’s story is like those of so many of my other students who work themselves into exhaustion just to be here in school. For me, their circumstances raise two important questions: As a professor and club adviser, how can I work around these students’ extenuating circumstances in a way that is sympathetic yet firm, and how can I convince these students that college is worth their while?
I often have students come in with late assignments or club members who have fallen short on fulfilling their obligations to the group. They need more time or more help or they just drop the class or club completely. The most common excuse: I had to work.
My gut reaction is to be sympathetic to these students. I know how difficult it is to maintain a job, or in some cases many jobs, to support oneself in school -- I was in the same boat when I was there. At work, students have little control over their schedules or the demands put upon them. The bottom line is simple: You don’t show up, you don’t get paid and you get fired.
But in their academic lives, students become their own boss for the first time in their lives. Suddenly, there is no parent or boss or teacher breathing down their neck, leaning on them to go to class, do their homework, or attend that meeting.
When an exhausted, newly autonomous 18-22-year-old has to make the choice between work and school commitments, the scale is hardly balanced. On one end, there is the job they cannot afford to lose, and on the other, there is the education or organization that looks good on the resume, but produces few immediate tangible effects. After coming home late at night following a full day of work and classes and meetings, that paper due tomorrow might just have to wait.
The party line for most professors when dealing with this situation is this: School needs to be each student’s top priority. But is that really always fair to assume?
The challenge becomes weeding out which students are in Jill’s position from the barrage of excuses from those who are just being lazy. Often times, the difference is obvious. Students like Jill, who genuinely want to be here and are working hard for the privilege, rarely offer excuses.
Sure, I’m aware of Jill’s circumstances and the circumstances of others in her position, but she has never once failed to take responsibility for any lapses in work or effort. These students are here because they recognize the value of education, and they treat it with the same seriousness they do their jobs.
Still, things come up, and I am faced with a choice, too. Do I punish these students with poor grades or boot them from the organization they have let slip to the back burner, or do I find some way to keep them above water and feeling involved?
The easy choice, of course, would be to tell students like Jill that I can’t make exceptions for them because then I would have to make exceptions for everybody. Having to rearrange my schedule, my rules, and my expectations puts more pressure on me, and in this job, who needs it?
But I didn’t become a teacher so that I could be a taskmaster or a tough boss. It’s students like these that need and want our guidance the most, so I try my best to give it to them.
First, I try to work with the student, finding out if there are alternative times or locations to meet or making myself more accessible in case there is something I can do to help him or her understand the assignment better and complete it on time.
When other students complain or can’t understand accommodations given in unique circumstances, I use it as a teachable moment, reminding them that they will come across situations in the working world that they don’t understand, and everyone’s circumstances are not identical to their own. Sometimes as a manager, I say, you have to be flexible and do what is best for each team member to make the operation run smoothly.
Yet, when dealing with students like Jill, I find such accommodations are rarely necessary. Most of the time, all she needs is a little guidance, an open ear, and someone with authority to tell her she made the right decision.
Which brings me to my next big question: How can I convince students like these that college is worth their while?
Tuition costs are skyrocketing throughout the country, and more students are accruing eye-popping amounts of student loan debt each year, which means they will graduate and start their careers in a financial ditch. Programs have been cut to save money, and class caps at many universities have risen to generate more revenue from more students. Many colleges with an eye on the bottom line have increased the number of online classes they offer, in hopes of reaching more students in more distant locales.
There is an easy answer to give students who question the value of a college degree: Most career-track jobs nowadays require them. A high school graduate is not likely to compete with a college graduate for a teaching job or a marketing job. But there are still plenty of vocational careers and office jobs with decent salaries and potential for upward growth to give pause to students and parents who are not sold on the idea of college.
If Jill’s parents were sitting in front of you, challenging you to defend their daughter’s decision to put herself through college rather than going straight into the work force, what would you say?
When I graduated from college with my degree in journalism, I went to work in a small newsroom feeling prepared. I felt poised, brave, and ready to take on whatever challenges were presented to me.
I was a fool.
My journalism degree did not prepare me for every eventuality I would come across in my reporting career. What it did is give me the basic skills and knowledge I needed to secure the job and the ability to learn something new every day. I owe my success to brilliant professors who gave me the footing I needed to succeed and taught me to absorb education not just in the classroom but also throughout my life.
A fool without my background would have taken one look at her new job and run. This fool stayed, knowing I had the tools I needed to learn and grow. And I never looked back.
The opportunities for growth that came my way stemmed largely from professors who knew my abilities and pushed me to flourish. Yes, I learned the ins and outs of writing news stories while sitting in a classroom, but the real takeaway was the belief that I had the ability to fly above a Category 5 hurricane, knock on accused murderers’ doors, and grill disgraced politicians – all of which I did as a young reporter. When it got scary or it felt like too much, I remembered the lessons I learned at my alma mater, and, occasionally, I even contacted my professors for help, and I managed to carry on.
While in college, I was given the fantastic opportunity to fail. I botched articles, mixed up facts, missed deadlines, and, more than likely, offended sources more than once. Had I done any one of those things in my professional career, I likely would have been looking for another job. As it turns out, my college education was like juggling knives while wearing body armor, allowing me to fail without total destruction.
Furthermore, I never would have been a reporter had I not had the opportunity to dip my toe in other waters. I began college as an archaeology major. (Upon realizing archaeology is a science, I quickly turned and ran.)
I toiled with notions of becoming a theater worker, a “communication specialist” (whatever that is), and a public relations practitioner all before one wonderful journalism professor noted my work and talked some sense into me. Had it not been for college, I might still be looking for my passion and spending and losing a lot of money in the process.
As Jill walked across the stage at graduation last spring, I saw a confident, hardworking young women eager to begin her professional life and sure to be a success. I only hope her parents saw it, too.
Jennifer Brannock Cox is an assistant professor of communication arts at Salisbury University.
Loyola University New Orleans becomes the second selective college this summer to announce a major enrollment and budget shortfall. Is it a harbinger of things to come, or just a case of bad enrollment strategy?
It is high school graduation time, and some columnists here in California and nationally, in platforms such as Forbes and U.S. News & World Report, seem to be heralding in the season by carrying articles questioning the value of a college education. They report record unemployment levels among recent college graduates as the rationale for pursuing a trade right out of high school rather than pursuing a college degree.
What such articles fail to report is that the best insurance against unemployment is a college degree. A review of Bureau of Labor Statistics data tracing educational attainment and unemployment for all recessions since 1981 suggests that adults with a college education were twice as likely to be employed as those who had earned only a high school diploma. The logical claim is that education is an investment that pays off.
One recent article in our local newspaper, "College enrollment down, experts cite low funding, high cost” quoted Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, who, on a recent trip encountered a parking lot attendant and bellman, both of whom had earned college degrees, certainly not required for their jobs. His take was that their "financial return on a college investment was negative."
Vedder drew the wrong conclusion. During recessions some college-educated adults are forced to take jobs beneath the levels for which they are professionally qualified. But one cannot make the assumption that this is true for the majority of college graduates. Recessions have the tendency to exert top-down pressure on the workforce, squeezing the less-educated and less-experienced out the bottom and into unemployment.
Within the last two weeks National Public Radio broadcast a Planet Money segment which contained sound bites from a trio of national figures – Ellen DeGeneres, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Oprah Winfrey - delivering commencement addresses. All ardently urged the new graduates seated before them to "follow their passions."
I would encourage them to do just that, follow their passions … but tempered with pragmatism. Also I would recommend that academic advisers, coupled with an institution’s career advisrs, coach students to select majors and possibly minors that offer the student the opportunity to pursue both passions and careers. That way students can have their cake and eat it, too.
"What if you don’t have a passion?" asked the exasperated student interviewed in NPR’s story. College is a wonderful place to develop or focus passion. Yet in this era of global economic stress, it is tempting for students to home in on a career early during their matriculation. Academic and career advisors should be vigilant in helping students and their parents, who are likely to be pressuring them into an early decision about an occupation, to avoid that trap.
All students need a healthy dose of learning opportunities that build the skills and capacities that will support them as their professional and personal lives unfold. That is one of the purposes of the liberal arts, that broad curriculum that pundits love to hate. We must be more effective in communicating the value of the liberal arts, not just in capabilities and perceptions, but in jobs and in dollars and sense.
Journalists and "experts" who say nay to the value of a college education are doing millions of high school and college students a gross disservice. They are robbing students of the best hope of developing and pursuing their passions with careers, each in a civically responsible way. Shortsighted reporting on this undermines the national security of the country by limiting its ability to develop the human capital on which the future of the United States depends.
Devorah Lieberman is president of the University of La Verne.
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.