College: An Investment That Repays in Income as Well as in Humanity

Does any question loom as large over higher education today as whether the value of a college degree is worth what a student and their family invests in it? With ever-rising tuitions and a volatile and globalized world of work, what can be gained from pursuing post-secondary education?

To try to add sharpness to this topic, over the past year several large organizations have taken a dollars and cents approach to this issue. Payscale, Forbes, LinkedIn and even the federal government have offered ways to try to explain what college offers a student's earning potential.

Yet, unfortunately those kinds of purely economic-based rankings don't align with the more expansive way many schools understand our role in society and what we are helping our students learn, grow, and become successful in.

Monday afternoon I had a unique opportunity to unpack this question as a panel member during an exhilarating and well-attended session at the American Marketing Association's annual Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. Those conference attendees are at the forefront of finding ways to explain how families can best understand the long term meaning and worth of their investment.

Author Jeff Selingo, who organized the session, has been thinking about this question a great deal over the last few years and his insights will be the basis for a new book coming out in the Spring, There Is Life After College.

In particular, he invites us to push our analysis about whether a strictly monetized approach to considering higher education is sufficient. He then asks us if that approach is, in fact, incomplete, what else we should be sharing with the public and our possible future students (and their parents).

Jeff started by sharing an overview of a recent report from the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Value Equation, which demonstrates how colleges and universities have been putting additional energy into communicating this frequently-requested correlation.

The marketers and communications professionals in the audience asked how they can help share all of that that energy.

As one response, we told them that college helps students gain content expertise as well as an ability to identify social and economic needs where they can contribute, thus allowing them to add value to their future employers and generate a salary and a much greater income potential than had they not gotten their degree.

To illustrate how schools are beginning to share this knowledge, one of our panel members, Terry Flannery, the VP for Communication, described how she and her team at American University created an extraordinary and user-friendly data trove which allows families who are considering investing in her institution to know what kinds of results accrue from various majors. She said this has been a successful and anxiety-reducing resource.

As an additional response, I discussed how a college can help its students learn what it means to be active, curious, empathic citizens and engaged community members. It can help them better understand themselves and their possibilities in complex and expansive ways. And, as recent commentary on the wave of student protesters suggests, citing philosopher Martha Nussbaum, colleges can even be locations where young people learn how to raise grievances and speak truth to power to keep society moving toward greater justice and inclusion for all.

At Whitman, a small liberal arts college in eastern Washington State, five years ago our Dean decided to radically reorganize the way that we help our students connect their academic work to their long term interests to better prepare them for their multi-pronged professional lives. He created the Student Engagement Center, combining community service, volunteer, and internship programs with career advising and professional development. In addition, he encouraged us to engage our students at the very beginning of their time with us in order to help them fully explore possible industries, professions and the lives they want to build.

Because our approach to providing a broad liberal education allows our students to go in almost any direction after graduation, we use ample storytelling about our alumni. Our goal: to highlight the infinite options and paths available to our students because of the skills sets and reflective capacity they will have developed by graduation.

We use data to show outcomes, too, both at the six month point as well as at the five year point, yet we also always provide a more holistic look at what a life can be after Whitman, and so we tell lots of alumni stories, whether at six months out or at 266 months out.

Of course we want our students to find meaningful paid work, and they do. We also want them to take a hard look at what it means to be alive in America in the 21st century and put forth effort to make it a more just and secure world. They do that too.

Hopefully, the several hundred people in our session walked away appreciating both the financial return on investment as well as the human return on investment that can be realized through an excellent liberal education. A tweet from our session indicates that we may indeed have been successful in that goal.

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