Articulating the Value Proposition in Higher Education

There has never been a greater need for articulating the value of higher education. It is not only the critics of higher education but also core members of our communities who question both the utility of a college education and the cost of obtaining that education. There are powerful answers to these questions and those of us who have dedicated our lives to higher education should provide those answers. I believe that the best answers will be found in those schools devoted to a blend of liberal arts and skills-based professionally related educations for their students.

The best schools today educate students not only to stimulate productive lives, but also meaningful ones. These complementary goals are the core advantage of a residential college, providing a context in which students are transformed by their university experience. This unique American entity launches students into the wide spectrum of trajectories they will pursue to become full members of their communities and our society.

To some extent the issue of higher education's "value proposition" is a bottom line question, so perhaps it is best to begin with a bottom line answer. Studies have shown that college graduates will have lifetime incomes approximately 70 to 80 percent greater than those of professionals without college degrees. This differential will only increase into the future and not surprisingly so as the economy of the future will select for and reward intellectual agility and flexibility. A productive life in an ever evolving world requires skills that will prepare a student not only for a first job, but also a tenth job.

Skills for that first job must be of a practical and focused nature that many small, stand-alone liberal arts schools are ill equipped to provide. A university with opportunities to study business or the applied sciences, for example, will be well equipped to do so.

Focused skills are critically important, but not sufficient. The skills necessary for a hypothetical tenth job may be harder to define but, if anything, more important. Those skills are trans-contextual, ones that we can say with confidence will be needed even as the workplace changes dramatically over the years ahead. While we may not be able fully to imagine this transformed workplace of the mid-twenty-first century, we know our students must be able to analyze carefully; to think creatively; to communicate clearly; and, perhaps most of all, to turn quickly accruing information into knowledge.

These skills are the very essence of a strong liberal arts education. Knowledge about arts, humanities, and social and natural sciences sets up the meaningful life alongside the productive one. The deepest and most lasting impact of a college education shapes more than a graduate's value in the marketplace; it shapes his or her even greater value as a citizen. As Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco said, "The university should be a place for reflection for the young to explore areas of the human experience, to be fully aware of history and the arts... We don't want to have a population that has technical competence but is not able to think critically about the issues that face us as a society."

This kind of critical thinking is essential to developing leadership skills. Given the sheer velocity at which social and economic change now takes place, leaders must be able to identify problems, think clearly about the means to solve those problems, and inspire others to collaborate on implementing those solutions.

Our value proposition also defends the residential college setting. Although online teaching platforms such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have much to contribute and have profitably been expanded to achieve efficiencies in providing courses to distant and often disadvantaged students, they will not replace crucially important virtues of residential institutions. The full experience at such a university goes beyond what takes place in classes, to the laboratories and libraries, studios and stages, playing fields and courts, dining halls and dormitories. This experience further includes the vast array of social settings that a college or university provides, from one-on-one conversations to a growing range of student organizations and extracurricular opportunities.

The university must inculcate not only IQ but EQ, emotional intelligence, as well. The willingness to engage in real relationships and build real communities should in many ways be the hallmark of higher education, fostering students' abilities to understand their own motivations as well as those of others: This is the essence of emotional intelligence recognized by psychologists today as most closely predictive of success in complex organizations, be they private companies, government organizations, or entire societies.

Clear articulation of this powerful model not only answers critics of higher education. It creates pride in alumni and enhances their connection with the institution. During my years as a University President, when I have spoken around the country and indeed around the world and presented this value statement, concluding with "we are in the business of changing the arc of young people's lives," alumni have often said to me afterward, "I was one of those whose life arc was changed by the university." There can be no greater value of an education than that.