There are two purposes to this round of blog posts. First, I have written about various perspectives on the value of a college education. The other purpose is to demonstrate deploying content and gaining engagement for my current group of students. This post will conclude the series on value.
Employers that recruit college graduates seem to fall into two categories. Both categories highly value the college education. As a result, each is willing to reward the investment in education by providing high starting salaries for college-educated employees. Unfortunately, these starting salary levels are not universal. I occasionally encounter companies offering starting salaries half of the typical starting salary. Perhaps they should reread some of the earlier posts about the cost of college and the need for sufficient return on that investment. Besides these outliers, the two categories that value college education varies in their perspective on the essence of what they want from the newly graduated student.
The first group of recruiting companies values the liberal arts education (see https://www.marketinginsanity.net/thoughts-on-the-value-of-college/a-brief-history-and-the-background-of-the-indispensable-liberal-arts-education). The transformation of an individual through critical thinking, learning judgment, honing communication skills, and enhancing problem-solving ability is valuable to the hiring organization. These organizations value the new thoughts and ideas brought to them by the recent college graduate. Occasionally managers may rue some youthful enthusiasm but typically realize they need the energy and work the recent graduate provides. These employers are likely to cast a wide net and look at all or many majors.
The second group has specific needs in addition to the characteristics mentioned above. These can be engineering, chemistry, business, musical theatre, and so on. Skills in these disciplines go beyond the general education learning outcomes. As an example, here is a recent set of requirements posted in a blog for one area of my department, digital marketing.
However, it is this second group that sometimes struggles in their recruiting efforts. They look for these particular skills and then say all majors may apply. Take, for instance, the quote that accompanied the skills listed above. "The major can play an influence in an employer's decision, but the fact that you spent the time and effort to get your degree along with the experience you have received outside of traditional schooling and your work ethic goes further (at least in my opinion) than the specific degree you received." It is easy to understand the slippage from the desire for the essential skills from the liberal arts education to the specific major skills. Despite that statement of empathy, I am not sure such a statement as in the quote would be made about an engineer or concert pianist. These types of statements can confuse the student. That all majors may apply also confounds the value proposition. Employers must become conscious of their own needs and convey them clearly.
It seems that clear hiring expectations are essential for achieving the appropriate return on investment in specific majors. Employers need to embrace in their recruiting that they are targeting the best overall generalists. This is the category one mentioned above. These organizations should accept all majors as applicants. On the other hand, organizations in category two with hiring needs that match specific skills need to embrace that distinction. They should narrow their search to the appropriate major. The advice and messaging to the student from the employers must be clear. It will take clarity from all the parties involved in the college education process to help ensure the students achieve the return sought in the educational investment.
As an ending note, some future posts will address specifics challenges and remedies to delivering the collegiate educational value. Other posts will address sectors and organizations with impacts on the delivery of the value. This post addresses one such group. The employer and their willingness to pay for a collegiate education are integral to the value proposition.
This post will focus on the recipient of the college education, the student. While many authors address the modern student both positively and negatively, I build the theme of this post with the following quote (with my slight paraphrasing) in mind.
The counts of the indictment are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise. …
Children began to be the tyrants, not the slaves. They no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the goodies at the table, and committed various offenses against good tastes. They tyrannized over the pedagogy and schoolmasters. (Freeman 1912)
While the common attribution in this quote is from Socrates, it is not quite that old. This early 20th-century author provides their interpretation of the writings from the ancient Greek philosophers about children and students. So while the quote is not thousands of years old, the quote is over 100 years old and suggests complaints about the younger generation have substantially remained unchanged over time. Hopefully, I do not descend into generalizations about generations and instead use specific examples to explain the need for student responsibility.
Unlike previous posts, in this writing, I will share specific examples. These examples are from over 20 years of teaching at the university level. I will not cite many outside statistics but instead, express impressions from my experience at six different institutions. Finally, my perceptions of the correct direction for both student and institution are mine. They are not reflective of any institutional preference.
I will start with a great example of a student assuming responsibility and provide a compelling argument to his peers. It concerns attendance in class. Attendance at the university level is not a trivial matter, so let me explain the value of attendance. The positive story will follow this explanation of attendance.
Twice in 40 semesters of university teaching, I have made attendance optional in the sense that I did not assign any component of the final grade to attendance. Instead, I made it clear that I considered my lecture and in-class assignments, the expansion and learning a student should expect beyond what they gain from just reading the textbook. In other words, the additional value received from attending college. Not the value you could gain from just reading the material. I strongly encouraged students to attend as I felt it would improve their learning but left the ultimate decision to attend as their responsibility.
In the first instance of the non-mandatory attendance policy, the pass rate was under 60%, and the average grade was a D+. I waited many years before the next attempt at letting students have complete responsibility for attending class. Again, this means attendance has no direct impact on their final grade. Perhaps my explanation of why to attend was more compelling. Also, I had the previous class example, which I shared with the current students. Another explanation for the better outcomes is the students were better. In any event, the final grade outcomes were better but again significantly below my expectations and experience with other classes. The average final grade was 72%, and 10% failed the course.
As a department head, I am aware these outcomes happen when attendance is optional in other disciplines and with other professors. Attendance is a systemic problem at most universities. It is so critical that most universities mandate syllabi to address attendance policy in detail. This contrasts with previous generations that had the simple but obvious statement such as "students are expected to attend all classes." As shown in the following story, the situation does not have to be this way.
With that context in mind, I relate a discussion I overhead before an 8:00 AM class. One student who had car trouble explained to a group of other students why he made such an effort to be in class on time. In fact, he had gone around his apartment complex and asked several strangers if they were on their way to the university and if he could get a ride. According to my syllabus, the students in the class were incredulous. They pointed out that he could miss up to three classes without a grade penalty. The other students were correct about my syllabus policy. The diligent student explained that he had calculated the cost per class early in his college career. It was then that he decided it was a colossal waste of money to miss any class. It was like burning that cash as far as he was concerned.
This story and reasoning are from a student who readily admits his parents pay for his college expenses. To me, the point of this story is that some students are taking responsibility for gaining the value of their college education.
The next series of examples, however, show a different view of responsibility as expressed by students. The first is again from that most revealing of times, the minutes before class starts when various conversations occur.
This time a student and I are talking about the latest job interview she completed. She is explaining the interview ended with a job offer and that she was now weighing her three job offers. As the student and I began discussing the pros and cons of the various offers, another student interrupted. They had been eavesdropping. Their comment was, he wished he had those kinds of problems. I mentioned to the young man that if he had done the female student's legwork, he might have multiple offers to consider. I did not make that statement flippantly. I had set up two networking opportunities for this young man. Unfortunately, he had not followed up on either. As I continue to reflect on this incident over the years, I return to the point that the opportunities are there, but personal responsibility is missing.
The last vignette I share is on a systematic effort by my current institution to offer career opportunities to students. In this instance, my institution is fortunate to have two great departments that offer complementary but different majors. Students with a creative bent or desire should choose a major in a department different from mine. In contrast, students with business acumen and analytical outlooks should choose a major in my current department. As we tell students, you can achieve career aspirations with many different majors. However, in today's employment environment, employers seek specific skill sets. Therefore, it is easier if you are in the major expected by the employers.
This career outlook situation has existed for many years. Four years ago, a systematic and extensive campaign was instituted to ensure all prospective students and current students knew the situation. The goal was for the students to take personal responsibility for their choice of major. The university and department train every advisor on the different career options for these alternative majors. Every student receives information on the career paths associated with the various majors through written, verbal, and social media communications.
Additionally, when choosing one of these majors, each student meets individually with the department head of their respective major. And again, there is a conversation about the career options associated with the prospective major. This is an intentional and extensive effort to help students chose a major that advances their career aspirations. However, during all of this process, it is stressed that choosing a major is the student's responsibility.
This year, as part of the senior exit survey, students had an open-ended question; "What one thing would you like to share with the department?" Fourteen out of 80 responses, or 17.5%, expressed a lack of awareness about the career distinctions between the two departments and the alignment with career goals. I certainly can and do look at this as an opportunity to improve messaging to all students. However, I also wonder when the student's personal responsibility to pay attention to the advice and guidance begins.
One nonfinancial goal and benefit of a college education is developing individuals' awareness of their personal responsibility. It seems the institutions are providing the students with many opportunities in various learning and growth settings. Still, engagement in the learning process about personal responsibility is lacking by large percentages of students. I argue this extensive percentage statement because my exemplar examples are by no means unique to me. I found that between 10 and 40% of my students have failed courses that do not have a mandated attendance policy, meaning that students must be compelled to attend. Close to twenty percent of students are unaware of the systematic messaging about critical paths and decisions related to their major and career. Though I have no percentage, a significant number of students do not avail themselves of the personal and institutional resources provided to help them in their first career search.
It appears that personal responsibility can exist. See the example of the student that knew the cost per class. But personal responsibility seems to be waning. Perhaps it is time for the universities to let the pendulum shift over to increasing their personal responsibility. One step is allowing them to gauge and calculate the value of education and learning. Then, universities may need to believe in their own value proposition, provide the opportunity, and let the student attain the value. The implication is evident that the university should prepare for those students that fall short. The costs of a college education are high, and the consequences of failure are challenging. However, not providing consequences seems to diminish a core learning. Ultimately, students are responsible for the value of their collegiate education. It is possible that by mitigating the consequences of failing during college, the benefits of a complete understanding of personal responsibility through a lifetime may be severely diminished.
I think it is fair to say that much of what I have written so far is about the advantages and benefits of a college education. However, I guess I cannot stray far from my roots as a business professor. Therefore, it seems I position the argument in a cost-benefit framework. Frankly, as a parent paying for two children in college and as someone intimately involved in delivering a college education, I am OK with the cost-benefit analysis approach. A college education is expensive.
I think about cost-benefit as I ponder these facts. First, the number of Americans with at least a bachelors degree has exceeded 1/3 of the population as of 2016, according to the Census Bureau (https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2017/cb17-51.html). Second, the mean income and median income of US households in 2015 were $75,558 and $53,889 respectively in 2015 (Census 2017). Third, a college education's average moderate total cost is $24,610 at an in-state public institution. A moderate budget at a private college averaged $49,320 according to a recent survey of the College Board (College Board 2016). Meaning to me, households sending even one student to college are spending between half and all of their annual household income (or borrowing a lot) in hopes of a considerable return. Looking at this from a cost-benefit perspective seems appropriate.
From my previous posts, I also think that I firmly believe that college education is transformational. In most cases, the benefits far outweigh the costs. However, there is that catch in most cases. Three little words, in most cases, but these words should raise questions. There are many questions, but this post will focus on three questions. First, how many college students are not getting the ROI anticipated? Is awareness of the student loan burden only the responsibility of the students and their families? Third, can colleges and universities take additional actions to help students receive a positive ROI on their college experience?
In an earlier post, I commented on significant debt burdens. Too much money owed from loans along with not enough future income creates a scenario of poor to non-existent financial returns (College Education ROI 2016). What is not in that blog is the magnitude of this problem or the number of students facing this scenario. The number and percentages are staggering. There are a few ways to look at this but let us use the following method. By several estimates, the percentage of students that complete a 4-year program of study in 4 years is between 40 and 50 percent (New York Times 2014 and Department of Education). The department of education report estimates a rough average of 4.33 years or another semester to complete. Now let's connect that with the 70% of students receiving (the percentage is higher for private institutions and lower for the public universities, but we will use the average) (Federal Reserve 2016). Therefore, at least 50% are taking longer than anticipated to complete their degrees, and 70% of those are using loans. Using the method from my earlier post, I am coming up with that between 25 and 30 percent of college graduates are likely to have a negative financial ROI on their college investment.
However, this post is not an indictment of the college system. Problems with the administration of colleges is covered in a future post. And indeed, several activities and policies of colleges and universities are counter-productive to students completing their program of study in four years. Many other reports and posts exist outlining these issues. However, we need more attention to student responsibility and the students' choices. As most will agree, college is a preparation for a career and life. That should include the choice of incurring substantial debt. Many students are well aware of their debt burden. They are also aware of how to calculate and anticipate the impact of borrowing. Unfortunately, other students are demonstrably unable to make accurate assessments of the implications of their chosen debt burden (Forbes 2014). Students should be personally responsible and learn. However, colleges and universities are places of learning. Adding the processes below as required of students would help fulfill that learning mission while helping their constituency. Both students and institutions must jointly assume responsibility for education around student loan choices.
Here are three suggestions that might help students address students' use of loans. First, as a step in the loan origination process, the students must complete a version of the return on investment exercise. Base it on their specific loans and majors with projected incomes for that major. This exercise is a good use of their research skills in learning the expected salaries of their chosen field. The exercise introduces students to future cash flows and discounting those cash flows to present value. The quantitative nature of the exercise is a good demonstration of their mathematics competency. Second, colleges and universities must take student loans to the bottom or near the bottom as a suggested form of education funding. Under current processes, too often, the student loan is the first funding option after college savings. Third, the student loan approval process must consider a realistic assessment of past academic performance and level of borrowing. The current standard of 150% of adequate yearly progress is not appropriate for student loans (just check out the ROI). Nor does the current system adequately address the totality of debt burden in relation to future earnings.
The value of the college education and experience is fantastic. Borrowing in the present to reap the rewards of the future is not illogical or inconsistent. However, borrowing without personal responsibility and complete information is the wrong student choice. The suggestions may actually help some students recognize that college is not the best option at this time. Colleges and universities must accept that not all students can afford to attend at this time. Therefore, the institutions must not try to create an artificial demand through contrived education financing. A realistic financial approach seems a desirable outcome for some students. Institutions have a moral obligation to help all potential students avoid burdening themselves with unsustainable debt.
In a complete departure from the pragmatic approach in previous posts, this blog is for college students. The college experience is so much more than academics, graduation, and careers. The focus on the outcome and not the journey actually obscures the subtle but genuine benefits of college life. The lifelong friendships, the abysmal failures, and accomplishments that exceed the imagination are all part of the fabric of college life. Likewise, the passion developed for the college teams, politics, art, music, or whatever are also threads that bind together college life. And yes, even the parties, the late-night extravaganzas, the spring break road trips, and the enumerable (and often unspeakable) escapades are part of the whole cloth that forms college life.
Writers, more eloquent than I have conveyed the experiences and memories about the benefits of the college experience. In their ongoing efforts to enhance student retention, college administrators have tapped into the phenomenon that 1st-year students that engage in campus life and embrace the college experience have a 10% higher rate of returning the following year. This 'direct' involvement 'means' student organizations, fraternities or sororities, intramural sports, or other no academic engagement. It seems that being part of a community on campus has benefits.
But there is more to college life than the community. The current term is exposure to diversity. And most often, that diversity is not just ethnicity or culture but a broader disparity in world views. Of course, different backgrounds are inherent in many college settings. But also, students are exploring and learning different perspectives. They may, for a time, adapt or adopt a perspective different from their background. Interestingly, they may eventually find the new perspective wanting. The future may find them returning to their original base view and a deeper appreciation for its nuances and subtlety.
However, they may not. And all these adaptations and adoptions can lead to conflict. Some students find pure joy in arguing and debating. Freedom of expression can lead to some playing devil's advocate just for practice. Others can learn that debate leads to learning. These students may push their fellow students not out of spite or malice but to enhance their own understanding. Inevitably these discussions can lead to discomfort and even pain. It is a challenging time for students. But it is also a growth period. So again, this college life and experience grows the student.
It comes to my mind that the previous blog focused upon the college education's financial rewards and monetary returns. The numbers in that post may prove daunting. Some may use the insights of that post to argue against the pursuit of a college education. This post, however, focuses on the unmeasurable benefits. What is the dollar value of learning tolerance? How do we quantify the benefits to society of cohorts of college graduates that lived and grasped that different viewpoints are actually good? How to value that tolerance and exposure to alternate views? Or how to place a dollar return on exploring alternatives that help reinforce and deepen our own convictions? This valuation challenge seems to be the conundrum of the college experience. College is expensive in both time and money. All that have the college experience inherently know these benefits. However, the dollar value we cannot fully explain to others. College is just invaluable just because it is.
The cost of attending college continues to grow exponentially. The how and why of these increases has seen lots of debate. However, rarely does any writer try to refute the fundamental fact that college is expensive. More often, proponents of college use this argument, "Sure college is expensive but look at it as an investment which has a tremendous ROI" (return on investment). Actually, this is an excellent argument in the vast majority of instances. However, as I hope to outline in this post, the pay-off approach used is often biased. For example, a recent WSJ article pointed out the shortcomings of this argument for certain under-represented groups. And this justification for the high cost of college does not fully consider all factors typically included in most business ROI models.
Whoa, you say, aren't you a marketer. Are you getting ready to take us down a finance path? The answer is yes. Marketer or not, if the argument for a college education is based purely on the financial model, then some definitions are needed. An informed customer needs some layperson terms and definitions to explain the ROI model. It is also helpful to disclose total costs, investments, and periods associated with college and its subsequent benefits.
Providing those definitions and then exploring if there is a positive ROI is the approach of this post. I begin with a few definitions and explanations of concepts first. After each definition, I discuss some problems and implications with these common definitions. Then I provide some examples of the application to the college investment model or the ROI approach after making some common-sense adjustments to the current assumptions. After reviewing these examples, we can see if we reach conclusions about the viability of college education on a purely financial basis.
I will begin with the most common cost discussed. This is what is now becoming a federal government mandate cost, cost of attendance, or COA. COA has its roots in the Federal Financial Aid literature, and this is a typical definition. "The COA includes tuition and fees; on-campus room and board (or a housing and food allowance for off-campus students); and allowances for books, supplies, transportation, loan fees, and, if applicable, dependent care. It can also include other expenses like an allowance for the rental or purchase of a personal computer, costs related to a disability, or costs for eligible study-abroad programs."
This is an acceptable definition to help compare costs across colleges and programs. However, when used in the financial model for ROI (as it most certainly is in most cases), it violates a fundamental assumption of ROI models. You should only include costs or expenses that would incur if you take the investment action. That assumption would exclude on-campus room and board (or a housing and food allowance for off-campus students), transportation, and dependent care. The exclusion is based on the idea that a person going to college does not 'cause' housing, transportation, or the need for dependent care. Even the need for a personal computer seems essential across all life situations these days. However, the tuitions and fees are substantial and are a significant portion of the investment. Associated with college would be the cost of student loans but only the portion of the loan related to tuition and fees. Taking loans that allow for higher housing, transportation, or food standards is an issue for a different kind of blog.
An additional issue with the COA is that it excludes an essential cost, opportunity cost. Opportunity costs in our ROI model would be forfeited income because most of the person's time is spent studying in class. At a minimum, that would be 4 years of at least minimum wage in a full-time job, though it could be substantially more. Because it would seem likely that a recent high school graduate that earns admission to college is likely to secure more than a minimum wage job.
Finally, the ROI model discounts future earnings and costs to a present-day value, so all dollar values are equal. Any model should discount back to the decision point of choosing to attend college. That would mean the first month of attendance. The period is neither to a graduation date nor to the date of acceptance. Therefore, with those assumptions in mind, we can explore some alternate scenarios. There is one other time-related assumption, the length of time to pay off loans. Most federal models assume a ten-year time though research cited by US NEWS in 2014 shows an average closer to 24 years Link. Since most interest amortization is based on 10 years and most discount models in business use 10 years, we use the 10-year assumption.
One other aside, we will not assume loan forgiveness as the current administration's policy will become standard practice. If it should become policy, then the ROI would only increase exponentially.
Next, it is time to build out some scenarios. This may seem tedious at first, but I assure you that I used the most unbiased sources I could find. I also made sure to disclose the date of the studies. This is because college costs are changing, and estimates from even a decade ago can be poor representations of current conditions. Oh, and by the way, if bored with the numbers, you can jump down and see the conclusions.
First, we start by noting some of the research on the returns earned from a college education. The first thing that jumps out is these returns really do depend on the degree earned. This degree earned means not only what university is attended but also relevant is what major. The recent WSJ article noting that under-represented groups were not earning a positive ROI neglected to account for this difference.
These factors will add quite a bit of variation in earnings. We try to use on average with considerable caution that any individual should keep the college and major in mind. One very commonly cited study comes from the US Census Bureau Link (however it is from 2002) showing over 10 years the college graduate earned $195,000 more than the high school graduate or $19,500 more per year. Again not this study does not provide the complete story. We have to factor in the opportunity cost of earning $75,600 over the four years of college, which we subtract from the $195,000. Therefore, for this scenario, we will use $119,400 in additional earnings for the college graduate. The Pew Report from 2014 does not show a great deal of difference though the gap is decreasing Link. For this scenario, the gain over 10 years is $175,000, and the opportunity cost is $112,000. Therefore, we have an effective gain of $63,000.
Next, we need some estimates on the cost of tuition, fees, books, and supplies. The College Board Link estimates in 2014-15 that the average tuition and fees for 4-year public institutions are $9,300 per year. Books and supplies add approximately $700 for a nice round figure of $10,000 per year. Assuming that the student borrows the 31% estimate provided by Sallie Mae in 2014 Link, and then the discounted amount of interest is added on. So we have another $13,500 of college costs. Our total cost for attending college for four years is $53,500.
Now to revisit the additional earnings estimates for college graduates. Using the same discount rate on the cost of student loans, we have additional earnings of $103,725 from the 2002 census date versus the $53,500 cost of 4 years of college costs with interest on student loans. However, under the Pew Report of 2014, the picture is not so positive. The discounted earnings surplus for the college degree is $54,730 versus the $53,500 cost of 4 years of college costs.
These examples are using averages. Degrees in subjects that typically earn less (art history?) will see ROI go down and possibly be negative. On the other hand, the university's brand may raise earnings above typical or average earnings and thus increase ROI. However, using the more recent Pew numbers, should the amount of college funding by loans go up substantially and/or the cost of tuition and fees go up. The positive return on investment is likely to become negative. While I am a firm believer in the additional non-financial benefits of a college education (see my previous posts), the ROI financial model with significant student loans just does not seem to make a strong case at this time.
If you have read some of the previous posts, the theme has been the benefits of a college education. A college degree is the culmination of a transformational process. When it works best, this transformational process should create a new trajectory for the individual's future. And while I teach in the practical and applied marketing discipline, I believe the indispensable foundation to this transformational process is the liberal arts courses. Some universities now refer to these courses as the general education program.
As I will elaborate upon below, these courses influence multiple facets of individuals' development as they pursue becoming 'college educated.' First, the liberal arts education forms the historical foundation of what is known as a college education. Therefore, in that sense, these courses provide a common link to what is considered a college degree. Second, another benefit of these multidisciplinary courses is to introduce students to a breadth of knowledge. Additionally, it is common that for undecided students, one of these subjects might become their passion and major. Finally, beyond the benefit of providing a breadth of knowledge, the courses also form a foundation about lifelong learning both in the process sense and in developing a quest or thirst for new understandings. Each of the above outcomes provides a compelling argument for liberal arts education. But when the entirety of these outcomes is considered, they provide a compelling argument for these courses as an indispensable foundation.
To further expand on these positive outcomes, let's begin with the history of a college education. So far, in these articles' I have used the United States version or definition of College or University interchangeably. That may not be appropriate as we discuss higher education's origins, which has also been referred to in others cultures as tertiary education. Tertiary is a third-level education or beyond secondary education. In some parts of the world, this tertiary education is limited to University education. In contrast, others refer to both University and College. Therefore, we will try to review only the origins and history of third-level higher education, which of course, would assume the existence of secondary education.
The origins of tertiary education with a liberal arts component are traced to the European institutions that evolved out of cathedral or monastic schools between the 11th and 14th centuries. These institutions existed for the study of the Arts and the higher disciplines of Theology, Law, and Medicine. The Arts encompassed arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These seven disciplines became the foundation of modern Liberal Arts education.
There are, of course, different configurations depending upon the institution. But the core disciplines remain essentially the same. Recently added have been learning outcomes of intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Essentially though, the core remains the same as was taught for the last thousand years. The benefit of this continuity is that today's students are uniquely connected to those from hundreds of years ago. Each student studied these core disciplines and went through a transformation as they strived to earn their collegiate credentials. Thus, an expectation and experience endured over the centuries of what it means to be collegiately educated.
Some intellectual and practical skills develop as outcomes of learning in-depth the content knowledge of courses such as calculus or chemistry. This, of course, is the second benefit of the liberal arts component of college. However, learning the above skills also develops perseverance as students move through courses or disciplines that do not engage or interest them. Often their learning is how to develop intrinsic motivation based on persevering to achieve an ultimate goal. Rare is the collegiate student that has not privately or publically complained, "why do I have to learn this?" This query about a subject or two is usually followed with the youthful assurance, "I'll never use it in real life." Only later will they find the usefulness or perhaps realize that the process of learning as a skill unto itself was enhanced by 'slogging' through the course.
Of course, moving through the breadth of courses also helps the student explore and perhaps find their life ambition. At my institution, over fifty percent of the students in my discipline change their declared entry major at least once. This level of change is as it should be. Expecting an 18-year-old student to understand their life goals is unrealistic. They often have not even had the exposure during the secondary stage of their education to the breadth of opportunities. Similarly, these students have limited exposure to the experts in these various disciplines. These experts are the exemplars of that discipline that can appropriately convey the content and future of the discipline.
So, before students get to the expertise development provided by collegiate education and their major, they need to expand their horizons. We have a compelling argument about the transformational nature the general education provides. A process vetted by hundreds of years. This general or liberal arts education changes the student, hones intellectual skills, and potentially helps sort through majors and career opportunities. It is for these reasons that as part of the collegiate experience and the collegiate education that I deem the liberal arts component indispensable.
A quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson goes something like, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." The actuality is that Mr. Jefferson apparently never said those exact words. However, perversely the fact that I know he did not use those exact words proves his point. And just as important is the context. The argument about education comes in a letter to Charles Yancey while arguing for public education, including university education. The exact words about democracy and education are, "if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be." And I am not overstating my education or memory. Instead, the point is that I learned how to research the background of this famous quote.
This is an example of an outcome of my university education. My professors insisted that I needed to be curious and skeptical. They insisted we as students should always seek out the source of knowledge and not rely on others' opinions or conjectures. Further, I was educated on how to conduct that original research. I could find the original letter to Mr. Yancey from Mr. Jefferson and read the quote and the context. This letter is an interesting read, as are most of Mr. Jefferson's letters, but that is an aside.
I need to be clear, I was not a history major though I am a history buff. I was not a Political Science major either though I took the LSAT for fun one time. Nope, I was a statistics major. However, I received the basics of a liberal arts education that formed the foundation of my critical thinking skills and research skills. To Mr. Jefferson, this training was essential for democracy. Otherwise, Mr. Jefferson felt any government has a propensity to erode the liberty and property of the people. Education and skepticism could be a stalwart against this degradation of personal liberty. Therefore, that benefit alone might seem enough 'value' of college education to society. However, I would argue there is more.
An economic impact and multiplier develops from college education on the macro level. The evidence seems compelling. In 2003, Sianesi and Reenen concluded in their article in the Journal of Economic Surveys that each year of University education increased overall GDP by 3 to 6%. The increase in education also increased the rate of growth in GDP in the United Kingdom. The research has built on these findings to conclude that it is not just attendance but the quality of the education that leads to the "strong evidence that the cognitive skills of the population - rather than mere school attainment - are powerfully related to individual earnings, to the distribution of income, and to economic growth." Page 1 (2008) Hanushek and Woessmann, World Bank Working Paper 4122. These are just two of literally hundreds of papers empirically demonstrating that college or university education accelerates economic development.
It is apparent that University educations transform the individual, and through those educated individuals, their society. For over 200 years, the foundation of democracy has had education as a pillar. In addition, for almost as long, the innovation and drive that lead to economic prosperity have come from the same source. In the next post, we begin looking at the actual mechanisms that lead to university education.
It seems as if we are in the cycle when the articles about college and university education focus upon the income earned after graduation. Occasionally, there is a slight variation, and the article, news story, or blog post focuses on career success. And, of course, these stories miss the point. These are the outcomes of a college education. There is not a guarantee associated with a college degree. To this point, many like to point out examples of those with college degrees getting fast-food jobs. But, of course, these stories of less successful career outcomes miss the point as well.
College is a unique transforming journey tailored to each individual. The importance of the previous statement compels me to repeat and rephrase. A successful college experience will transform the individual in a manner that will alter the trajectory of their life. The goal of colleges and universities is to create an environment where each individual can transcend the projected straight line of their supposed destiny. The roots of this highly successful system have been around for over 2500 years. (This history will be the subject of a separate blog).
I read an interesting article pointing out some successful business people that did not complete their college education https://hbr.org/2018/02/how-ceos-without-college-degrees-got-to-the-top. Of course, there is a flip side to the statistics of the article. That flip side implies that 92% of the 2600 CEOs have college degrees or a whopping 2,392. For now, let me point out the positive impact of this individualized system on a very personal level. By personal, I mean I will relate my own experience.
Mine is neither dramatic, awe-inspiring, or particularly interesting. Instead, I think you may find the essence of the beauty of the college transformation is in its very mundane nature. My father was an enlisted man in the U.S. Army Air Corps and then the U.S. Air Force. He was the son of what is called a sharecropper today. My mother was college educated and the only daughter of a middle-class family. Unfortunately, my father passed away when I was five. This fact is relevant only so much as his Air Force benefits are a big part of what enabled me to go to college.
Now I went to college in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My degree is a B.S. in Statistics. I am sure none of my professors would remember me. I attended the University of Florida, which even then was a large state institution. I had a great experience, but what sticks in my mind the most is how those years form such a fundamental foundation. None of the technical computer skills I learned then are relevant, but the decision trees we had to learn still are part of my planning process. The language I learned was Latin. I remember next to nothing but the words of other romance languages such as Spanish, Italian, and even German have patterns I recognize.
My skepticism of doomsayers and pessimists remains from my college experience. I remember clearly the abundance of articles about the coming Ice Age (see Time Magazine January 31, 1973). This quote is a personal favorite of mine "Climate experts believe the next ice age is on its way."- Leonard Nimoy, 1978. You can see more here http://www.populartechnology.net/2013/02/the-1970s-global-cooling-alarmism.html. Of course, these comments and projections are in direct contrast to the current Global Warming projections. I am not here to take sides in either projection. But point out, my nuanced view of both projections is a product of my college education that included science, mathematics, languages, social sciences, and breadth in all subjects. This expansive approach to subjects in a college education changed me forever.
Nor was this an easily accomplished transformation. I was young and unbelievably self-assured. My college education launched me in my career, and I was successful beyond even some of my grandiose ideas. I also had some significant setbacks, which, once again, my college education provided the resiliency for recovery. Through it all, I continued to transcend what was likely a mediocre path. I have no idea where a child raised in a single-parent family in the 60s would have ended up, but I do not think it would be where I am now. Even with a college degree, I am not sure many (especially not me) would have projected me as the chair of an academic unit at a University or a Full Professor. Nevertheless, I am a college professor teaching B2B digital marketing. The mere existence of this blog provides another example of the change wrought by my college education.
Therefore, to me, a college education is not the outcome but the opportunity. The design of each university and college is to create the opportunity to transform. Sometimes students do not avail themselves of the opportunity provided but still successfully graduate. That is their loss. There are other examples of those non-graduates that did encounter the transformation. That is great. However, for the vast majority, the opportunity to transcend is there, and they fully embrace all that is offered. This opportunity is not imposed upon any. Instead, it must be embraced by each individual. Then the transformation and transcendence can occur, creating the potential later positive outcomes. Those outcomes will likely occur but are absolutely the byproduct of the college education and not the primary goal.
I encourage all who read this considering college for themselves or their children to reframe your questions. Do not just ask about the post-graduation outcomes. Instead, ask and listen to the answers about how the university plans to transform. What systems are in place that make the change and even the transformation in the future graduate?
Sometimes a prospective student reframes or abbreviates the above questions as “Why go to college?” Others (not students) touch on the questions from the perspective of expense and cost. Meanwhile, some people look at the questions and answer through the lens of their personal experience. It appears the framing of the above questions and the answers are often from each person’s perspective. We need to consider a broader perspective. That will not be easy. It will take time and patience to explore fully.
The purpose of this series of blogs is to broaden the reader’s perspectives on colleges and universities. A broader understanding of a college education and the value of the colleges can deepen the conversation around why. The value and importance will be partly from the transformation this education imparts upon the individual. There are also societal values that come from an educated citizenry. There are cultural implications. There are generational commitments, which fuel the rhythm of transference. There is certainly the perspective of investment and the expected return on that investment. Finally, of course, it is critical to understand the origins of what is today’s college education. These topics, as well as others, will be part of this series of blog posts.
It is also likely that I will not convey everything correctly or succinctly. My colleagues in higher education likely will disagree with some of what I post. That is fantastic. I welcome alternative points of view and all the corrections I will richly deserve. That dialogue informs and broadens everyone’s understanding and serves as a living example of civil discourse. The ability to communicate while agreeing to disagree is another of the beautiful benefits of this topic, a college education.
I hope for one final benefit for this blog. I hope that other educators and I draw back the curtain on how we attempt to educate. I think even we as educators and professors sometimes forget in the day-to-day grind the larger picture. We do not want to hide or be less than transparent about our learning goals, but sometimes, we forget to voice our noble purpose. However, ask any of us. We will indeed beam when we talk about that moment when we discern awareness or understanding has dawned within our students. The sudden joy we feel when that proverbial lightbulb goes on within our students.
So buckle up and enjoy the ride as I humbly attempt to provide my perspective on the answers to “Why have colleges and college education?” If all goes according to plan, I will post on this topic every week. This round of posts will feature on LinkedIn. I hope that there will be some teaching tips mixed in along with some pictures of my trips. Please, if you read, comment. Agree or disagree, all viewpoints help, so I look forward to comments. And feel free to reshare anything you find worthwhile.
Work, careers, hobbies, sports, and life, in general, are becoming more complicated every day. Achievement and success in most endeavors take aptitude, motivation, and quite often highly developed skillsets. Therefore, it was not much of a surprise when I recently received an inquiry from a member of my state’s legislature about “what skills are students in your major developing?” I do not think this legislator was wondering about critical thinking, historical perspective, and other “meta-skills.”
While I generally do ascribe to the belief that college is more than just a sum of skills in a particular discipline, I occasionally wonder if we could not achieve both but a different way. For instance, my marketing students often do not start on their major coursework until their third year. With each year costing the student anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000 in direct costs, not to mention opportunity costs of lost income, it is a fair question to ask if there is a better way.
However, in today’s rapidly changing society, one key meta-skill regularly refutes the accelerated program approach. That meta-skill is the ability to learn to self-educate. Upon even a short reflection, most people will recognize that the skills they acquired three, two, or even one decade ago are outdated in today’s world. In this evolving workplace and society, skill sets can rapidly become obsolete. The cause can be as mundane as the ability to program and use a VCR (videocassette recorder for those too young to know) to learning a computer program language such as FORTRAN (now I am dating me). Yet, knowledge of how to perform these tasks was seen as an essential skill during their day.
There is little doubt that anyone can learn to learn. However, as mentioned in previous posts, over the centuries, the liberal arts program of study as a basis of a college education has had phenomenal success. In addition, it is not just the college courses that help students learn to learn. Learning to learn comes from the college experience with its inherent introduction to divergent views and lifestyles. Learning to learn comes from the college experience that challenges and changes or reinforces students’ preconceived worldviews. Learning to learn comes from the college experience with all its periods of being out of one’s comfort zone combined with periods of sublime connectedness.
Of course, these same activities in college build other solid traits and characteristics such as flexibility and tolerance of others. However, for today’s students, these must be combined with current skills. There is little or no argument against engineers learning how to fully understand material stress loads or chemists grasping the implications of molecular structure. Both historians and experts in literature need to understand the search devices available today. And all students need skills in tools such as WORD, EXCEL, and others. With that said, there is a caveat. The need for some of those skills can and will decay.
So for the legislator or any person wondering about the skills being developed by the current group of students, it is vital to remember the bigger goals of college that are relevant. Those skills are extensive and momentarily relevant. They provide a great launch point. But they cannot replace the continuing need for the development of new skills. Moreover, those emerging skills are very likely self-taught. Therefore, the final skill or trait that we most want of college students is that they have learned to learn.
Many of you know that I am teaching B2B marketing #b2b #b2bmarketing using LinkedIn as the platform for the students to learn how to manage both a LeadGen and ABM campaign. Some may also know of my firm conviction that a university education is a transformative event. Combining these two important aspects of my life has led to this latest endeavor. I will be posting links to my blogs on the value ofHere are my essays.