Assessing the Value of a College Degree?

Now in its second week, Washington is no closer to ending the government shutdown. Prior to the shutdown there had been some heated conversation about how best to assess the value of a college degree. Nevertheless, from the White House to the average citizen, policy discussions on how best to measure the value of a college degree are overlooking the importance of the helping professions. The value of these historically underpaid fields, such as teaching, social work, and other advocacy roles is great, but these jobs often do not lead to generating a very high income.

Solely measuring the value of an educational experience in future earned dollars provides a limited view into the great value of a post-secondary degree. Recently, I saw this in action from Wheelock College alumna Genevieve Dagobert, an example of someone whose heart and soul are dedicated to working with children. After the 2010 earthquake devastated her native Haiti, Genevieve's passion to serve children, youth, and families resulted in her taking an absence from teaching early childhood education at Hunter College to manage an education program for the International Rescue Committee. Genevieve's intrinsic drive to help others is an inspiration; in her own words: "I am a citizen of the world, and my role as a human being is to touch a life. That life will touch another and that one another, and so on. It is about caring and helping each other. You do it and you don't give up."

As we all know, decisions about college can be some of the most important in students' lives. College is a time for learning about engaged citizenship, self-exploration, and personal fulfillment--which may not align with future income data. However, I believe there needs to be more intentional conversation on the issue of whether college graduates' earnings can accurately measure the quality of a college education or particular major.

Most of the graduates of Wheelock College, where I am President, enter fields in which they make an invaluable, long-lasting impact on the lives of children and families--their resilience, persistence, and determination is great, despite knowing that their earnings will not be on par with their value to society. There is no work more important or rewarding than the social justice-minded professions such as social work, teaching, counseling, and youth advocacy. Yet, how can you measure and assign a value to helping a child learn to read, bringing a family back together, or steering a teenager back on track? These are the men and women who are tough enough to care for and educate the children who are the future of our country. Nevertheless, these historically female-dominated helping professions remain too low-paying and low-prestige.

Attracting and retaining the best minds in the social justice minded professions is a prevalent issue due to low wages. Nearly 50% of teachers leave the profession within five years--one of the top reasons cited is low pay. The average starting salary for a teacher is on the same level as a bartender-- about $35,000. Who adds greater benefit to society? Due to stagnant wages, teachers' salaries have actually declined for 30 years. Buying a house, paying back student loans and raising a family are challenges on this income. With over half of the nation's nearly 3.2 million public school teachers becoming eligible for retirement in the next ten years, I am concerned about having skilled professionals to replace them. Other helping professions are also underpaid. In 19 states, child care workers make less than $9 an hour, despite the rising costs of childcare. Women are disproportionately affected because about 98% of early childhood program employees are female.

How can we reverse course? Short of increasing salary requirements for the professionals, like Genevieve Dagobert, who dedicate their lives to schooling and caring for the future doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, surgeons, etc., policy makers ought to consider one important factor to mitigating some of the financial burden of higher education by increasing loan forgiveness under the Federal Perkins Loans, especially for those who serve high-risk children and their families from very low-income communities. Perkins Loans are currently awarded to students with the greatest financial need, up to $5,500 per year. Offering the opportunity to cancel all or part of the loan for certain types of employment or service is a step in the right direction. Other countries can serve as examples: Wheelock collaborates with the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) to offer a Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education. In Singapore, they have a much different approach to teaching. The government recruits graduates from the top third of their class to the profession, offers a robust training program and greatly values teachers. Starting salaries equate to about 95% of the county's GDP, compared to the United States at 81%. Consequently, this results in a high status of the profession and low turnover--just 3 percent a year.

The impact that a teacher can have on shaping the direction of a child cannot be underestimated. A Harvard study found that the long-term impacts are students who are more likely to go to college, earn higher incomes, and less likely to be teenage mothers. A student's cumulative lifetime income can be raised by $80,000 in just one year of having such a teacher. Similar impacts have been found for many of the other helping professions. For these reasons and more, I encourage Congress to get back to work and vote to meet our country's commitments by raising the debt ceiling. These discussions need to resume in order to support those who are committed to making a difference in the lives of children and families.