Increasing the worth of a college degree

Henry Eyring, The Daily Record Newswire

Search the Internet for the question, “Is college worth it?” and you may be surprised by the answers. Even some higher education experts are saying, “No.” But the question can’t be answered meaningfully without first addressing two other questions. One is what “worth” means. The other is what “college” means.

Today the federal government compares colleges using a three-part definition of worth. The elements are (1) the yearly cost of attendance, including tuition and living expenses, (2) the institutional graduation rate, and (3) graduates’ average starting salaries. That’s a pretty good proxy for what financiers call “return on investment.” It shows the out-of-pocket costs of college relative to the financial benefits, risk-weighted for the possibility of dropping out.

As humanities professors and many business leaders point out, the worth of a college degree goes beyond a graduate’s starting salary, which indicates neither the long-term earning power of the degree nor its intangible benefits, such as self-awareness and civic-mindedness. Moreover, the value of a college education is inter-generational. Studies show strong correlations between a mother’s level of educational attainment and her children’s likelihood of going to college.

Still, the government’s College Scorecard is meaningful, and it reveals cause for concern. The institutions with the best return on investment tend to be those that are hardest to get into. Not surprisingly, by accepting only well-prepared students, you stand a good chance of graduating them into high-paying jobs, which compensate for even higher-than-average educational costs. That has allowed the most selective schools to routinely raise tuition in excess of inflation. The resulting price umbrella, along with easily accessible student loans, has allowed less-selective schools to do the same. The consequence has been a steady decline in the worth of the typical college degree, with many students — particularly those who fail to graduate — getting a negative return on their investment of time and money. For them, college isn’t worth it.

Fortunately, institutions can influence all three elements of financial worth. The cost of attendance can be reduced by serving more students with existing resources and low-cost instructional approaches. Classes can be offered in evenings and during the traditional summer break, lowering the per-student cost of facilities and potentially speeding students to graduation. Likewise, online instruction allows for hybrid and fully online courses that make an institution’s most expensive assets, classrooms and full-time faculty time, go further.

New technologies also make it easier to identify and help struggling students before they drop out. Many institutions have increased retention of first-year students, the group most at risk. Many also help students find post-graduation work while they’re still in school. Required internships, with institutional support in finding them, can make that a realistic goal.

However, significantly improving post-graduation employment prospects — as well as increasing graduation rates and decreasing a student’s total cost—also requires reassessing what “college” means. Today that term is shorthand for a four-year bachelor’s degree, one which begins with general education courses and leads to specialization in an academic discipline. That design made sense for the Ivy League students whose university presidents created it in the early 1900s. For those students of yesteryear, the cost of college was low relative to their families’ means. Graduation was all but assured. And they expected to get professional training in graduate school.

Today, though, that same model is applied to many students whose financial means, educational abilities, and employment needs differ dramatically. They may be better served by getting a professional credential — and a job — first. At BYU-Idaho, we’ve faced that reality as we serve online-degree students in places such as Africa, where student loans are unavailable and four years (or more) is too long to wait for employability. Ironically, degrees designed for them, with one or more certificates and an associate’s degree imbedded in a bachelor’s credential, may make college more “worth it” here in America.


Henry J. Eyring serves as Academic Vice President at BYU-Idaho.  He is a former director of the MBA program at BYU’s Marriott School of Management.  He holds degrees in geology, business administration, and law from BYU.


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