Post-Graduate Success Not Solely Based on Earnings

The irony hit me immediately.

Last Thursday, President Obama unveiled plans to rate and reward colleges and universities based on outcomes as measured by the earnings of their graduates.

And yet, just a few months ago, President Obama recognized Gettysburg College and four other higher education institutions as national models for our commitment to civic engagement and community service.

I'm having trouble reconciling these two instances. Where in President Obama's plan for evaluating institutions of higher education is the role that a college or university plays in preparing students for community service, for lives of responsible citizenship? Surely the President does not believe that the value of a person's contribution to society can be measured by how much money he or she makes.

There is no question that college graduates earn significantly more over their lifetimes than high school graduates. That said, I understand the desire to know more about the graduates of specific colleges and universities. I'm all for transparency and accountability in higher education. As they select which college or university to attend, students (and their parents) want to know what their prospects will be when they graduate. How much money will I owe? How many graduates go on to graduate and professional school? How many graduates are employed? In what kinds of jobs are they employed? What are students majoring in particular disciplines most likely to do when they graduate? These are questions that those of us who work in higher education should be prepared to answer.

But does it really make sense to measure the value of a college by the income of its graduates?

At Gettysburg College, more than 70 percent of our students engage in community service. They provide tutoring and ESL lessons to migrant workers and their families, they help address the food gap in our community through innovative programs and services, and they support sustainable development projects abroad. While many of our students go on to lucrative careers, many of them also pursue careers in public service -- they join the Peace Corps, they become educators, they work in nonprofits. And we consider them to be successful.

Obviously we want -- and expect -- our graduates to make a living, to be able to support themselves. We have a strong career development program to help students cultivate professional interests, participate in internships, and develop a career network. But we don't measure their success based on how much money they make. And surely President Obama wouldn't either.

More than ever, our nation needs graduates who are passionate about education, eager to work in the nonprofit sector, and engage in public service careers. Although these careers don't necessarily yield high incomes, they are of great importance to our society and often quite fulfilling for those who choose them. A system that rates our colleges and universities based upon graduate income is likely to dissuade institutions from encouraging students to take on these important roles.

Over the past few days, I have heard from Gettysburg College alumni who question the President's plan and the impact it could have. A recent graduate who is a high school math teacher said he was sorry if his modest salary might impact his alma mater's rating in a negative way; however, he would never apologize for choosing to help students learn about math and about life. In my eyes, this young graduate has found success, despite the fact that he is not earning a 6- or 7-figure salary.

In the months to come, I look forward to contributing to the national conversation as we consider ways to recognize those institutions of higher education that best serve our students' needs -- and the needs of our society. We need more Americans who can think clearly and critically, who aren't afraid to face society's challenges, who can solve complex problems, work collaboratively, behave ethically, and fully embrace their role as responsible citizens of our communities, our nation, and our world. We need more graduates who are inspired to make this world a better place.