Disconnect on the Value of College?

SJU students in class discussion

Photo: Steve Woit

For those of us in the academy, the value of higher education is rarely questioned.  We are products of this world, and we believe in our educational mission.  But every year we must convince students and their tuition paying parents of this proposition which we take for granted.  Certainly the significant and consistent data about the returns on a college degree help make this case, but high school seniors do not necessarily read research reports as they consider their post-secondary options, so the “conventional wisdom” as conveyed by the media can certainly influence the beliefs and ultimately decisions of young people and their families.

Recent survey research by the non-profit, nonpartisan Public Agenda organization suggests some worrying trends in this “conventional wisdom.”  As the researchers report in the summary of their research, “Our new survey suggests public confidence in higher education is waning.”  Specifically:

For many years, when we asked the public the question, “Do you think that a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today’s work world,” an increasing percentage of Americans said yes. That trend has shifted since the Great Recession. Now, just 42 percent of Americans say college is necessary for workforce success, a 13 percent drop from 2009. Fifty-seven percent of Americans say there are many ways to succeed in today’s world without a college degree, a 14 percent increase from 2009.

The graph below shows the significant drop in beliefs about the necessity of college in the last decade:

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When researchers asked about the value of college as a good investment, the respondents were split.  Slightly more than half of those surveyed, 52%, viewed college as “still the best investment for people who want to get ahead and succeed,” while 46% of respondents said “a college education is a questionable investment because of high student loans and limited job opportunities.”

These result stand in stark contrast to what alumnae of the College of Saint Benedict and alumni of Saint John’s University say about the value of their college education.  Our Institutional Research office surveys CSB and SJU alumni three years after they graduate, after they have had time to get settled personally and professionally, to assess the outcomes of their residential, liberal arts experience.  Below are some of the results from the most recent four years of data from the graduating classes of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.  The results are the range of outcomes over those four years.

  1. The liberal arts education I received at CSB/SJU has contributed significantly to my personal and professional development.
    Those responding: Strongly agree or agree
    Between 86%-92%
  2. Faculty and staff at CSB/SJU recognized and appreciated my talents and helped me to develop them.
    Those responding: Strongly agree or agree
    Between 86%-90%
  3. My current paying job uses skills I developed as a CSB/SJU student.
    Those responding: Very much or quite a bit
    Between 67%-79%
  4. How well did your CSB/SJU experiences prepare you to perform your work ethically and with integrity?
    Those responding: Very well or quite a bit
    Between 86-92%
  5. How well did your CSB/SJU experiences prepare you to thinking critically about complex issues?
    Those responding: Very well or quite a bit
    Between 86-92%
  6. How well did your CSB/SJU experiences prepare you to write clearly and effectively?
    Those responding: Very well or quite a bit
    Between 80-89%
  7. How would you rate the quality of your overall experience at CSB/SJU?
    Those responding: Excellent or good
    Between 94-98%

The differences between the two groups of respondents is striking.  Obviously one group is a random sample of adults whose experiences with college vary widely and likely includes some respondents with no experience with higher education.  The CSB and SJU respondents all had a significant and largely successful college experience–they graduated.  As Jon McGee, our Vice President of Strategy and Planning, notes, “The survey is our own and is unique to us.  Therefore it is not comparable to other institutions.  That said, by nearly all of the measures included in the survey, our alumni describe tremendous outcomes.  They attribute extraordinary value to their CSB and SJU experience, value that we believe would surely be comparable to the best colleges in the country.”

I take two things away from these incongruous results:

  1. I am very proud of the educational experience we provide our students.  We promise them a great residential liberal arts experience that will serve them well personally and professionally throughout their lives and, according to them, we deliver.
  2. The public perceptions about higher education seem unfairly and even dangerously pessimistic.  While I know that not every college can deliver what we are able to do, the evidence on the value of higher education is beyond dispute.  Yet the public has apparently come to view higher education as an increasingly optional path into the working world.

It may be optional for that first job after high school, but for the vast majority of individuals who seek a solid middle class life and a meaningful career with opportunities to grow and develop, college is essential. Most concerning to me is that those students whose choices might be swayed by this “conventional wisdom” are those who are most likely to be harmed by limiting their post-high school options.  It is not the young man living with his college educated parents in an upper middle class suburb who will decide that “there are many ways to succeed in today’s world without a college degree.”  But the young man in an urban center who would be the first in his family to go to college might well internalize this skepticism about higher education, seek other ways to succeed without college and end up limiting his possibilities for a lifetime.

Those of us working in higher education will naturally continue to stress the value of a college education, but to make sure that all young people can make a well-informed decision about what is best for them, all of us need to share our own experiences of benefits of college.  Johnnies and Bennies are especially well-positioned to make this case, given the great experiences they report.

Not everyone should necessarily go to college, but every young person should take full advantage of their talents and a great four year college experience is the best path for many seeking to fulfill their potential.

By |September 26th, 2016|Categories: Economics, Higher Education||0 Comments

Another Case for the Liberal Arts

2016-05-08-sju-commencement-068

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

The historic model of higher education was built on the medieval trivium and quadrivium, but liberal arts in the 21st century have been the object of much recent criticism (see here , here, and here). Politicians, many employers, parents and students have come to emphasize the importance of vocational skills, which are often equated with STEM or technical fields.  Even President Obama, a product of Occidental and Columbia, has taken a swipe at art history majors—though he later regretted having done so.

Not surprisingly, many educators have risen to the defense of the liberal arts, but support for a broad-based, non-vocational education has recently come from what might be considered an unlikely source: The Wall Street Journal.  In a recent article, author George Anders explores the career paths of college graduates and reports in the headline, “Good News Liberal-Arts Majors: Your Peers Probably Won’t Outearn You Forever.”    He discovers the unsurprising fact that the first job out of college does not determine one’s career path.  As the table below shows, as liberal art majors enter the peak earning years in their 40s and 50s, they do as well or better than those with more vocationally oriented majors.  (I would also note that these data emphasize the humanities and social sciences, but of course the natural sciences are part of the liberal arts and sciences too.)

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Some employers will seek vocational prep in the short run, but as they look to promote individuals into leadership and management roles in the longer run, liberal arts skills come to the fore.  As Anders writes:

In the short-term, employers still say they prefer college graduates with career-tailored majors. A recent survey of 180 companies by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that at least 68% want to hire candidates who majored in business or engineering. By contrast, only 24% explicitly want communications majors, 21% want social-sciences majors and 10% humanities majors.

When asked to define the résumé traits that matter most, however, the NACE-surveyed employers rated technical skills 10th. Four of the top five traits were hallmarks of a traditional liberal-arts education: teamwork, clear writing, problem-solving aptitude and strong oral communications. Mindful of those longer-term needs, some employers end up hiring humanities and social-sciences graduates, even if such majors aren’t explicitly singled out when recruiting.

“It’s easier to hire people who can write—and teach them how to read financial statements—rather than hire accountants in hopes of teaching them to be strong writers,” says  Liz Kirschner, head of talent acquisition at  Morningstar Inc.*

Another recent Wall Street Journal article makes a similar point.  In an article entitled, “Employers Find ‘Soft Skills’ Like Critical Thinking in Short Supply:  Companies put more time and money into teasing out job applicants’ personality traits,”  author Kate Davidson writes that:

The job market’s most sought-after skills can be tough to spot on a résumé.

Companies across the U.S. say it is becoming increasingly difficult to find applicants who can communicate clearly, take initiative, problem-solve and get along with co-workers.

Those traits, often called soft skills, can make the difference between a standout employee and one who just gets by.  While such skills have always appealed to employers, decades-long shifts in the economy have made them especially crucial now. Companies have automated or outsourced many routine tasks, and the jobs that remain often require workers to take on broader responsibilities that demand critical thinking, empathy or other abilities that computers can’t easily simulate.

While one can quibble about whether the term “soft skills” carries a mildly pejorative connotation, the skills described—critical thinking, clear communication, teamwork—are among those emphasized in a broad based liberal arts education and those that are likely to be increasingly attractive to employers.

A great liberal arts education is about preparation for a lifetime and the skills emphasized in that education have and will continue to serve liberal arts graduates and students well as they seek advancement and opportunities throughout their careers.

* The beauty of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University accounting majors is they can both write and read a financial statement, which is why they often end up as CFOs or CEOs.

By |September 22nd, 2016|Categories: Economics, Higher Education||0 Comments

Mentors and Community

Photo: CSB/SJU Media Services

Photo: CSB/SJU Media Services

Among the most important policy issues in higher education are the outcome from earning a bachelor’s degree.  The outcome most often measured is return on investment (ROI).  What are the economic gains over a lifetime from a college education?

As important as this economic question is, students, parents and educators are rightly interested in broader measures of success too.  A study done jointly by the Gallup Organization and Purdue University a couple years ago sought “to study the relationship between the college experience and college graduates’ lives.”  The researchers developed an educational outcome called “thriving,” which was how they described respondents who reported themselves to be “strong, consistent, and progressing — in all areas of their well-being.”

The Gallup-Purdue researchers then attempt to identify specific aspects of the respondents’ college experience that were correlated with “thriving.”  Not surprisingly, respondents noted the importance of their interactions with faculty.  Respondents were significantly more likely to be thriving compare to their peers if, “I had at least one professor at [College] who made me excited about learning” or “My professors at [College] cared about me as a person.”  These positive experiences are not unexpected, though the fact that only 63% of respondents had the former experience and 27% had the latter doesn’t paint the most flattering picture of faculty-student engagement across higher education.  (Though I quite confident both those numbers would be close to 100% for graduates of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.)

Photo: CSB/SJU Media Services

Photo: CSB/SJU Media Services

As meaningful as faculty relationships are, a third finding of the Gallup-Purdue study is especially important to those of us in small residential liberal arts settings.  Respondents in the survey were also significantly more likely to be “thriving” if, “I had a  mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.”  This mentor did not have to be a faculty member, yet only 22% of respondents reported having such a person in their life during college.

I was reminded of this study when a faculty member shared the following story with me:

A custodian who works at CSB and SJU was telling the faculty member that her child was about to start school here.

The faculty member emphasized the importance of the custodian’s child developing a close relationship with a coach, staff person or faculty member during the first year or two in order to have a mentor to rely on during the inevitable ups and downs of college.

The custodian said she understood the importance of this through her own interactions with students.  She went on to describe one of her student workers, whom she met a few years ago.  This first generation student was not from Minnesota and came from modest economic circumstances.  In the first semester away from home the student struggled mightily to adjust to the academic, social and cultural challenges of college at CSB and SJU.  But midway through first semester the student told the custodian that it was not working.  The student planned to finish the semester but not return.

The custodian told the student, “We’ll get through this. One day at a time.”  And they did.  Since that conversation, the student has spent time with the custodian over breaks, goes to her house to visit often during the semester, and the student’s family has visited the custodian’s house and family when they come to Minnesota to visit.  The student now has a GPA nearly identical to the average of all students, and the student will graduate on time in 2017.  By any measure, the student is thriving.

The student and custodian have no doubt that they will remain friends long after graduation.

The Gallup-Purdue research team titled their analysis “Life in College Matters for Life After College.”  This conclusion is hardly shocking for most educators, especially those of us in the residential liberal arts world, but it is a special tribute to the community at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University that its credo is lived out daily by all who interact with our students.

I and our students thank all those quiet but powerful mentors who generously and selflessly help our students thrive at CSB/SJU – and throughout their lives.

By |September 12th, 2016|Categories: Economics, Higher Education||0 Comments