Getting Your Money's Worth in a College Education

Everyone's looking for a great deal nowadays -- something that's worth their hard-earned cash -- and a college degree is no different. In recent years, we've begun to look at college degrees with a mercenary attitude, which means to say we want to know how much of a return on our investment we'll get.

While that thinking is perfectly reasonable if you're interested in gas mileage or annuities or real estate development, the logic gets a little muddy when you talk about higher education.

Admittedly, there has been a growing battle between community colleges and liberal arts colleges, because the prevailing thinking suggests you don't get anything for a liberal arts degree except the ability to quote Plato at dinner parties, while the kid who studied culinary arts can make a mean foie gras, and the information technology graduates will always be in big demand, even if only to set up their grandmother's new computer.

Sacred Heart University, where I am president, is a liberal arts university, which we believe offers the best of both worlds. We offer the learning outcomes that are traditionally associated with the liberal arts in our common core, along with an opportunity to delve deeper into either a traditional liberal arts discipline or a professional area. In the professional arena, for example, our College of Business is AACSB-accredited -- a designation earned by fewer than 5 percent of business schools worldwide.

The debate over the benefits of a degree is more complex than whether it will pay off in dollars and cents, just as the issue of college affordability is, even though some recent surveys have made a somewhat flawed and damaging attempt to quantify college affordability and rank institutions on a few facile factors. It just doesn't work that way.

I know because Sacred Heart got the damning distinction of being named on the nation's least affordable college list by a Newsweek survey, which we believe used a seriously flawed methodology to determine its rankings.

The survey considered debt, total cost, financial aid and future earnings. Leaving aside, for the moment, the very personal family decisions related to debt and the reasons for choosing a private school that often requires a larger financial commitment, the greatest weakness was the method for determining future earnings. The survey used the starting median salary of graduates and their mid-career salary, according to PayScale -- a website that only has salary information from those who go there and fill it out. Amazingly, the salary comparison database that was used represents less than 1 percent of the total Sacred Heart alumni body. How definitive is that? Who approved this process anyway?

It gets worse. The survey only considers the salaries of those with a bachelor's degree who have not gone on to further study. Schools that have a much larger percentage of students who go on to professional graduate schools, like Sacred Heart, which typically leads to highly paid jobs, were not accurately represented in this study. This cuts the legs out from under the kind of education received at a liberal arts university.

Also, schools that have substantially grown recently, such as Sacred Heart, are not accurately reflected in the salary data. Quite simply, today's student profile is vastly different from that of the alumni contributing mid-career salary data. Those graduates attended a much different university -- it was a commuter school with fewer academic programs. For example, getting back to those students graduating from our ASCSB-accredited business school: it is accepted that AACSB-accredited schools produce graduates that are highly skilled and more desirable to employers than non-accredited schools. It is more than reasonable to suggest that these students will have a higher mid-career salary than those who graduated 20 years ago.

So, growth and success hurt you in this survey. That just doesn't make sense, particularly since much of this growth has been directly related to innovation in response to the marketplace.

Nearby Yale, which was ranked the 14th most affordable school by Newsweek, has been in existence for more than 300 years, and yet Sacred Heart graduates enter the workplace with a median salary ($44,800) competitive to that of their Yale counterparts ($50,700). Doesn't this say a little something about return on investment?

The survey also cites student debt, a topic that has been in the news a lot lately since student loans account for about 35 percent of total consumer debt.

At Sacred Heart, we give financial aid to 92 percent of our students because many of them would not be able to otherwise attend college. That aid represents a commitment of $36 million that is given in recognition of academic and creative excellence as well as financial need. Despite the high percentage of students with aid, Sacred Heart has a student loan default rate of 1.8 percent that is well below the national average of 8.8 percent. And we remain committed to doing all we can to make education affordable for everyone.

It's unfortunate that a survey such as this, which misrepresents the value of an education, gets more credibility than it deserves. But we live in an age where such rankings fulfill a need to provide shortcuts to doing the necessary homework required to reach an informed decision.

I don't believe the purpose of a college education is to make you rich. The purpose of a college education is to educate. However, as we slog through the out-years of the Great Recession, the unemployment figures offer telling insights. For those with a college degree, the jobless rate was 4.7 percent, while it hovered around 9.1 percent for those with only a high school diploma and 14.1 percent for people with less than a high school diploma.

Life certainly isn't easy for recent graduates. A survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that half of the young people 18 to 34 are in jobs they don't like just so they can pay their bills, and 8 in 10 of those surveyed think it's more difficult for young adults to find jobs than it was for their parents. Yes, finding jobs is difficult for everyone, largely because of a stagnant economy and the Baby Boomer generation's desire to stay in the workplace longer.

But a good education gives students the ability to think critically and innovatively, which is something that will always be in demand and is necessary in any profession and in any economy.