In a market where education is largely viewed as a commodity, more Americans than ever want to know if they’re getting enough ‘value’ from their higher education experience. It’s little wonder, with a growing number of skill-based alternatives to traditional college programs as well as the growing cost of higher education. President Obama’s recent proposals on creating a new framework for ranking colleges based on return on investment are in tune with most Americans contemplating heading to school. Higher education has traditionally been seen as a path to the middle class. But in a time of massive student debt, and a number of high profile schools with low graduation rates, how can you tell if your school of choice will provide the value you need?
Step 1: Defining Value
The first step in discussing how to get the most value out of higher education is discerning what exactly we mean when we say a degree is ‘valuable.’ Two answers to this question are currently prevalent. As Karen R. Lawrence president of Sarah Lawrence College argues, traditional discourse on higher education tends to pit the ability of a college to place students directly into a job– providing a specific skill set– against more traditional college aims of teaching students how to think, read, write, socialize, and become better learners on their own. While we’ll cover both of these angles in more depth, note that these types of education often aren’t mutually exclusive, and that each are the proper fit for the right type of student or personal goals.
Generally discussions of monetized value in higher education have in mind one–or several–of the following measures: salary at some point after graduation, employment rate, return on investment, or lifetime earnings. These measurements are generally more easily tracked in technical fields where specific degrees prepare students for specific roles in the work world. In short, schools offering technical degrees often have more predictable student trajectories. While this is often good, a predictable future is only one measure of success. This is evidenced through the proliferation of many top liberal arts schools at the top of rankings of best college ROI’s.
Discussions centering on the extent to which graduates emerge who are ‘well-educated’ and ‘ready to contribute’ to society are often ridiculed for being ill-adapted to the modern economy which saw millions of graduates emerge during the recent recession without skills that were immediately needed. One response is that the ability to succeed in one particular economic moment with your skill set while bypassing the ability to think clearly, read, write, socialize, and learn is shortsighted. Many of the jobs that students are studying to obtain skill sets for today didn’t exist 10 or even 5 years ago. Fast forward to the middle of current students’ careers and the requisite skill sets for many high paying jobs may be unrecognizable. Teach students how to learn, how to adapt to and create change, and you’ve created a college environment much more valuable in the long run.
Regarding 30 year return on investment for universities, only 29 surveyed schools (out of over 1,400) actually netted graduates less than they would have earned had they not gone to college. This establishes a helpful baseline. Namely, that–on average–almost every major at almost every school with some sort of graduate earnings data is at least somewhat of a net gain financially. Though this functions as a basic measure of how higher education provides monetized value, it should also be taken with a grain of salt, as comparing those who attend college and those who can’t or don’t does fall prey to the self-selection bias. There’s no true way to measure the earnings of a college graduate had they not gone to college, but it’s likely that the earnings of college graduates had they not attended college could differ from those who don’t attend college in the first place.
More so than the actual school you attend, one of the most surefire ways to establish monetized value through your college experience is to choose a technical workforce ready major. For most educational settings, the range between the least workplace ready majors and the most is larger than the range between the your earnings and those who attend other colleges. Eight out of the ten most lucrative majors based on peak career earnings are engineering majors, with Physics and Construction Services rounding out the top 10. On the contrary, return on investment is lowest for social work, the fine arts, and education professions (which compose 6 of the bottom 10 earners). When choosing a job-ready major, however, make sure to also consider the demand for a given major. While education majors don’t make as much as many other majors, they’re perpetually in demand and often offered other benefits common for jobs for state entities.
Monetized value of college degrees is measurable, and even if it’s not the only way to measure the value you gain from higher education, there’s certainly nothing remiss with wanting to obtain a good livelihood from such a large investment. In support of the traditional idea that college is a well-solidified path to the middle class, President Obama’s recent ranking proposal seeks to penalize institutions that don’t offer returns on investment. Such institutions–largely for-profit colleges–make promises on earnings they don’t deliver on, often leaving students in debt and often don’t ensure the proper support services to help students to even make it through four years of coursework.
Value in Resiliency: Lifelong learners
While the ability to get a job out of college is decidedly important, many argue that a subset of skills sometimes not immediately rewarded by the job market can add much more value to your future life and work. Namely the skills needed to be a lifelong and resilient learner and leader: the ability to think analytically, express ideas effectively in writing, speak and argue coherently, bring innovation to your work, carry out independent thoughts and projects, and accept and act on criticism. Many employers argue for the value of such a skill set even when it may not be immediately applicable to technical work situations. Those who have a solid basis on learning how to learn often catch up to technically skilled counterparts.
The average person now changes careers between 5 and 7 times during their working life. Even if you do come out of college with a lot of technical knowledge, this means you’ll be expected–on average–to learn technical skills of at least a few other disciplines in your life. And employers know this, with 93% of employers agreeing that “a [job] candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”
A final note on making your college experience valuable, is that whether you’re focusing on a hyper-specific skillset or becoming a well-rounded learner, employers look at a wide variety of skills and experience not essentially tied to your schooling experience. Four in five employers say an electronic portfolio helps them to ensure that job applicants have the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in their organization. Across most industry sectors, employers strongly believe in educational experiences that push active, effortful work: including group projects, internships, and community engagement. Few employers believe that field-specific knowledge and skills alone are the most important indicators of an individual’s career success.