How to Assess the Real Payoff of a College Degree

Looking at college explicitly in terms of its “return on investment,” measured in starting salaries and potential earnings, is something new—a confluence of anxieties about the rising cost of college, mounting debt among students, a flaccid economy, and the ubiquitous vocabulary of the market. This perspective is everywhere now, embedded in the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, the college “ROI rankings” from the salary-tracking company PayScale, the countless recent books assessing the value of college, and The Chronicle’s own new tool, College Reality Check.

The conversation about college and its returns gets down to a question that has dogged academe for decades, if not centuries: What is higher education for: Personal growth? A golden ticket? Or some of both?

John R. Thelin, a professor of education at the University of Kentucky and author of a major history of American higher education, cites a moment in the 1870s from The Education of Henry Adams as the advent of the idea that a college degree would pay off. Adams asks a Harvard undergraduate from the Midwest what he thinks his education will do for him. “The degree of Harvard College is worth money to me in Chicago,” the student replies. A flummoxed Adams was trying to instill something deeper in his students.

Tallying the costs of and returns on a college education in financial terms is surely slippery business: It depends on who you are, where you come from, where you think you’re going, where you really are capable of going, and what might derail or propel you along the way. One’s perspective is also skewed by political beliefs, race, and class. And for some, particularly among advocates of the liberal arts, framing the value of education in dollars and cents is a perilous trend that discounts other benefits, like college graduates’ tendencies to be more involved in civic and intellectual life. <Read more.>

Via Scott Carlson, The Chronicle of Higher Ed.