Building Confidence in the Value of Higher Education


Every year, high schools students find themselves sifting through a mound of glossy college brochures touting noteworthy alum, great sports teams and beautiful campuses, but what criteria should students actually be using when determining which college to attend? Should financial concerns be weighed above academic ones? These questions are at the center of a heated debate between President Obama and many college presidents over a plan to implement a universal rating system.

In an effort to infuse higher education with some accountability and make students more informed, the president plans to rate colleges based on five factors: tuition cost, average student debt, graduation rates, accessibility to lower income and minority students, and the earnings of graduates.

Criticism of the plan has come from all sides, but the loudest and most fervent complaint is that focusing on earnings of graduates is not a suitable barometer for quality in higher education. “It’s our view that the quality of a college degree, or the value of an institution of higher education, extends far beyond just what their graduation rates are or what the short-term job prospects are of their graduates,” Debra Humphreys, vice president of policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities told US News.

While college does offer value in many ways, surveys show that the vast majority students go to college to improve their job opportunities. Students look to college to serve as a bridge to financial independence and success, but their confidence in the value of higher education is eroding.

Better data, better decisions

Outliers aside, there is a direct correlation between education and earning potential, but not all schools and degrees are created equal. Our economy has a strong preference for elite universities and for STEM degrees, but that doesn’t mean those paths are the right choice for everyone. Giving students the ability to evaluate schools based on cost and earning potential will help inform students and lead to better decisions. Encouraging students to choose schools that align with their interests and finances sets them up to reach other personal and financial milestones down the road.

Schools should embrace this as a teachable moment. It’s a chance to encourage students to make decisions based on logical reasoning, which includes the ability to put something like this rating system into context—encouraging them to understand their individual needs and to weigh their options accordingly.

A dose of reality

Some critics feel that quantifying education can’t or shouldn’t be done. But why? We use data to measure almost everything, and complex industries such as business, finance, and our economy are all run by data-driven models and ratings systems. The argument that higher education is too complicated and difficult to quantify is a flimsy attempt to avoid the inevitable. Will the rating system be perfect? No, but fear that the system will not be perfect should not prohibit progress and efforts to improve the existing system.

The magnitude of the student debt crisis has eroded the mentality that student debt is a niche problem and reminded us of the larger context student debt plays in our economy and society. Improving college affordability is an economic imperative, and the solution requires us to try new things and be willing to cut the fat.

Change is never easy, especially for an industry steeped in tradition, and higher education is feeling the pangs of disruption. The rating system may reveal hard truths, but we have to be willing to accept those truths and then decide how we want to deal with them. The debate over the unfair role that socio-economic status plays in admission, dropout rates and graduate’s pay is valid, but the discussion of those issues and solutions to those problems are not necessarily the same as the issue at hand.

Taking it one step further

The rating system will help students make better decisions about which school to attend, but what about their next economically important decision: which major to declare? Tuition costs the same regardless of major, but earning potential varies greatly. Our income prediction model shows that 10 years after graduating, a computer science major will likely be earning $126,000, but an english major will only be earning $70,000. That’s a 55% wage gap. If we really wanted to inform students about the value of their degree, then we should print the average salary for each major in each university’s course catalogue. Would it decrease the number of art history majors? Probably, but even successful art history majors question the value of their degree.

While you may want to think twice before declaring art history as your major, you should definitely take courses in arts and humanities as they play an important role in maintaining a well-rounded and intellectually curious society capable of solving the world’s most challenging problems. As MIT professor Deborah K Fitzgerald wrote in an op-ed for The Boston Globe, “The world’s problems are never tidily confined to the laboratory or spreadsheet. From climate change to poverty to disease, the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale, and engineering and science issues are always embedded in broader human realities.” The United States can regain dominance in education by perfecting the balance between teaching technical training while fostering student’s soft skills and imagination.

Having the data, the transparency to pick a school and a major that will likely lead to a job where one can flex his creative thinking in meetings and have the luxury of pursuing the arts in his free time — now that sounds like a good deal.

image: University of Denver