Following Up: The Return on a College Investment

I’ve got to make some serious progress on some other projects, so I don’t plan on a lot of blogging this week. But instead of just going into my “Best of The Pietist Schoolman” reruns, I thought I’d point readers to some recent articles or posts elsewhere that follow up on some topics I’ve blogged about before.

Original Post: College and Jobs: Are There Safe Bets?

Follow Up: How to Assess the Real Payoff of a College Degree” (Chronicle of Higher Education, April 22)

If you were interested in my earlier summary of a roundtable discussion at the New York Times — of which majors and career tracks offered the best “return on investment” for a college education — then see this article by Scott Carlson. It interrogates the very notion of applying ROI to higher ed:

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.

John ThelinMost helpfully, Carlson frames the question historically, relying on John Thelin (author of a standard text on the history of higher education in this country) to help track how American colleges and universities have “long flirted with a utilitarian role.”

For Thelin, the crucial moment in attaching ROI to college education happened in the period of perhaps reckless growth after World War II that I’ve been writing about in my recent series on college closures. Presented with a more competitive landscape and the chance to get funding from governments, colleges and universities reframed their value:

By the 1970s, Mr. Thelin says, college presidents had honed a pitch for state legislatures and citizen groups: Higher education is good for the state economy, and if you want your daughters and sons to be prepared to take their place in that economy, it behooves them to have a higher education. And at the time, the pitch was true.

But they were beginning to tie academe to a return on investment, setting up an approach to measuring college’s value in paychecks. “That’s where they mortgaged themselves,” Mr. Thelin says. “They took a short-run triumph but now have a long-term consequence by emphasizing the job payoff.”

Also to his credit, Carlson takes seriously the challenge confronting students who must take out sizable loans to fund their educations, with less and less certainty about the kinds of jobs that will be available to them on the other end. And he tackles the question that history professors like me can’t help but worry about: can the seemingly “impractical” liberal arts survive if the conversation is recentered on return on investment?

Licensed by Creative Commons (401(K) 2013)

However inevitable (“and perhaps prudent”) the ROI conversation is (and the article points to a new ROI calculator from the Chronicle), Carlson concludes that “a single-minded focus on money pays little heed to one of the best aspects of the American higher-education system: its skill at developing curious, critical-thinking, culturally aware people. Those qualities may have greater financial rewards than critics realize.”

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