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Calculating the Value of a College Degree

Mauri Ditzler

My parents’ generation --- the one that won World War II and set our country on the path to being, at least for a time, the world’s superpower --- took the value of a college education as a given. Whether or not they were able to take personal advantage of the GI Bill, members of that generation were convinced that knowledge was the key to both personal and collective good. Engineers, doctors, lawyers, research scientists, diplomats and teachers would create a better future for the next generation.

Now, after more than a half century of concerted effort to increase access to colleges and universities there are voices that suggest that we have oversold the importance of education. Experts are debating the economic value of a college degree. How much additional income can we receive if we earn a degree? Is it a million dollars over a lifetime of work or perhaps only half that much?  Some are suggesting that too many students are going to college; they argue that many young people gain little by encountering great ideas and grappling with difficult questions. 

I have no objection to those who want to fine-tune the methods used to calculate the narrowly-defined, personal, monetary gain of a college degree. And, I acknowledge that not every college curriculum meets the needs of every high school graduate or the expectations of every employer.    But, we will have failed ours and future generations if we forget that colleges were created for both public and personal good.

Too often our society defines or ignores problems based on opinion polls and selects policy on the basis of popularity rather than analysis. But, scientific data can’t be voted in or out of existence and health care spending won’t heal patients if no cure has been developed for their disease. After four decades of experience in higher education, I am more convinced than ever that the many and difficult problems that face our society will be solved by the individual and collective work of a broadly educated populace. While the value of a college degree will surely go up if we make it a scarce commodity, there is no way to calculate the opportunity cost of sidetracking an individual whose hidden potential could contribute to our collective well-being.

I am delighted that a record number of young people are studying at Monmouth College this year. I am confident, that they will make, on average, a half million (or is it a million?) dollars more in lifetime income than their high school classmates who elected to go straight to work. That is a good thing, and I am happy for them. Even more importantly, I know that our graduates will live fuller lives, be better friends, neighbors, parents and spouses because of their experience in our community. Most importantly, quality educational institutions help young people develop the skills that will make our world a more humane, sustainable, just, productive, and healthy place. And, even the best and brightest among us can’t calculate the monetary value of that. As a popular ad once said, “That’s priceless”.