Opinions

College is more than a ‘return on investment’

Gene D. Block is chancellor of the University of California at Los Angeles. He serves on the board of directors of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and is a member of the executive committee of the Association of American Universities.

Every fall, just before classes begin, we at UCLA send thousands of our new students out to volunteer projects at schools, parks and community centers across Los Angeles. It’s a massive effort that serves our city and sets the tone for their experience. The takeaway: You are part of something greater, and you have a responsibility to help others however you can.

I admire the recent efforts by Sens. Marco Rubio and Ron Wyden to provide students with information about how much they will earn if they attend college and pursue different courses of study, but I also worry about how students will be influenced. The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act is a clear reaction to rising college costs and mounting student debt. President Obama also recently launched a similar bang-for-your-buck “College Scorecard.”

Unfortunately, framing higher education as a “return on investment” is wrongheaded — a result of states’ growing disinvestment in higher education. Diminishing support shows a lack of recognition for the ways higher education benefits society, sending a message that college is something people do just for themselves, not also for their communities.

Such data can be highly misleading. A graduate’s income in the first few years after college is a poor barometer of earnings potential later in life. Students might join the military, Teach for America or the Peace Corps and then go on to higher salaries in their 30s or 40s.

I also fear that the emphasis on measurable data, such as earnings, will overshadow unmeasurable data, such as what it means for a medical school graduate to practice in a poor, underserved area. Or what it means to become a teacher at a low-performing high school and inspire others to apply to college.

The world works best when people remember that we’re all in this together. While it is hard to correlate the benefits of a college education to societal well-being, never in my 35 years in higher education have I seen a more pronounced and sustained effort by young people to choose careers that serve society.

It’s a backlash, perhaps, to the 1980s individualist mantra that “greed is good.” The dramatic Wall Street downturn five years ago was also a stern warning to graduates that such a mantra cannot be sustained.

Universities, particularly those supported with public funds, exist to serve society. Asking students to choose a future based on a salary scale does not serve society and, often, does not serve the individual. Students need freedom and encouragement to find their passions and strengths. Framing decisions about college as a cost-benefit analysis will not encourage the creativity and risk-taking that has made this nation great.

Too often the academic community is accused of being divorced from the challenges of the outside world. But we in academia are all too aware of the struggles many students face paying for college and finding jobs after graduation. And we’re constantly looking for new ways to support them.

More and more, colleges and universities are also working aggressively to connect with the worlds beyond our campuses. The college experience cannot occur solely in lecture halls.

Last year, 3.1 million college students performed 118 million hours of service across the United States — a contribution valued at $2.5 billion. Here in Los Angeles, students from English classes helped high schoolers with college essays; German classes interviewed Holocaust victims for oral history projects; environmental engineering classes taught K-12 kids about climate change and water quality.

That service ideal stays with them after graduation. Each year, thousands of students will find jobs in nonprofits that assist people throughout the nation and the world. And they choose to do it — based on the critical thinking skills they developed at our campus. It’s true they will bring down the average salary of recent college graduates, but their dedication and sacrifice will also inspire many more.

Calculating the value of higher education will inevitably exclude factors critical to society. We should not let what’s measurable determine what is meaningful.

We need the next generation to ask questions grander than “How much money will I make?” That’s an important question, but it cannot be the only one.

They, and we, deserve better. “What barrier will I break?” or “How can I change the world?” These are the questions we must inspire every student to ask.

 
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