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What Makes a University Education Worthwhile?

What Makes a University Education Worthwhile?

18 February, 2016

It is reassuring to those who believe in the worth of a university education—and all the more so in a high-unemployment, low-growth economy—to show that the average person with a college education earns a lot more over her lifetime than the average high school graduate, even after subtracting the cost of college.

But it should not be too reassuring, because the economic payback to university graduates is not the only—or even the primary—aim of a university education.

To know whether a university education is worthwhile, we need to identify and defend the mission of a university education. Call this the mission question: What should universities aim to achieve for individuals and society? What is our ethical mission with regard to educating undergraduates?

Three fundamental aims of an undergraduate education in the 21st century:

  1. Opportunity: This speaks to who is educated and calls for broader access to higher education based on talent and hard work, rather than income and wealth.
  2. Creative Understanding: This speaks to the core intellectual aim of a university education, creative understanding, which I will argue calls for a greater integration of knowledge not only within the liberal arts and sciences but also between the liberal arts and professional education.
  3. Contribution: The third aim is an important sequel to the successful integration of knowledge, enabling and encouraging university graduates to contribute to society on the basis of their creative understanding.

Although the challenges of increasing opportunity, creative understanding, and contribution are not new, they take on a renewed urgency in today’s climate. Jobs are scarce. The United States is perceived to be declining in global competitiveness, and part of the problem is insufficient progress in education, starting with pre-school and K-12 education.

Anyone who craves a simple or single pathway to educational and economic success will be disappointed. (“There is an easy solution to every human problem,” H. L. Mencken quipped, “neat, plausible, and wrong.”  There are many external obstacles to educational and economic opportunity in the United States today—including poverty, broken families, and cutbacks in public support—which warrant everyone’s attention.

What can universities do to help increase educational opportunity? Ironically, if Gross and Thiel are correct in assuming that a university education is generally a waste of time and money, then increasing access to a university education also would be a waste of time and money. But the best available evidence indicates that they are mistaken. According to a recent Brookings Institution study, college is, “expensive, but a smart choice.” I would add: for those who have the choice and everyone should be afforded the choice. “Almost 90% of young college graduates were employed in 2010, compared with only 64% of their peers who did not attend college… College graduates are making on average almost double the annual earnings of those with only a high school diploma. And this advantage is likely to stick with them over a lifetime of work.” Moreover, “the investment in college has a rate of return of a whopping 15.2% a year on the $102,000 investment for those who earn the average salary for college graduates.”

The most relevant (and indisputable) economic fact is that, even in the depths of the Great Recession, the unemployment rate of college graduates was less than half that of high school graduates, and never exceeded 5.1%. The more affordable that universities make their education to qualified young people from low- and middle-income families, the more we can contribute to both educational and economic opportunity.

But this does not mean that the benefits of a college education accrue only—or even overwhelmingly—from increased economic opportunity. The second core intellectual aim of a university education highlights the benefits to college graduates of the lifelong satisfactions of creative understanding.

For low- and middle-income students, gainful employment itself is likely to be the most basic economic advantage of a college degree because the benefits of creative understanding are far harder to enjoy without basic economic security, and low- and middle-income students do not have a family nest egg of savings to draw upon in hard economic times. This observation does not require that the economic benefits of a university education be considered paramount among all the benefits of higher education. It does follow that—other things being equal—selective universities provide even greater value-added in opportunity to low- and middle-income students. While universities cannot do everything—our core competency limits our ability to engage in compensatory education—the available data show that we can provide greater access to qualified students from low- and middle-income families than we have in the past.

My concern for increasing access began with a focus on recruiting qualified students from the lowest income groups. Learning more led me to the conclusion that increasing access for middle-income students should also be a high priority. Since selective colleges and universities should admit only students who can succeed once admitted, we also need to ask: what percent of all students who are well qualified come from the wealthiest 20 percent? 36 percent of all highly qualified seniors (with high grades and combined SATs over 1200) come from the top 20 percent while 57 percent of selective university students come from this group. The wealthiest 20 percent of American families are overrepresented on our campuses by a margin of 21 percent.

All the other income groups are under-represented. Students from the lowest 40 percent of income distribution, whose families earn under about $41,000, are underrepresented by 4.3 percent. The middle 20 percent, who come from families earning $41,000 to $61,000, are underrepresented by 8.4 percent. Students from the second highest income group, whose families earn between $62,000 and $94,000, are also under-represented by 8.4 percent.

We need more than these numbers to make the case for increasing access. We also need narratives that highlight what is lost when a campus has few students from middle- and low-income families.

What makes an undergraduate education worthwhile? An education that cultivates creative understanding enables diverse, talented, hardworking graduates to pursue productive careers, to enjoy the pleasures of lifelong learning, and to reap the satisfactions of creatively contributing to society. The corresponding institutional mission of universities is to increase opportunity, to cultivate creative understanding, and—by these and other important means such as innovative research and clinical service—to contribute to society. At their best, liberal arts universities recruit hardworking, talented, and diverse student bodies and help them develop the understandings—including the role and responsibility of the professions in society—that are needed to address complex social challenges in the 21st century. To the extent that liberal arts universities do this and do it well, we can confidently say to our students and our society that a university education is a wise investment indeed.