A college degree pays off for the vast majority of people. The increase in earnings is just one factor in what college gives to students, but the “return on investment” is a useful quantitative measure of the value of an education. And while the cost of education is a good or even great investment for most students, the calculation each student makes has the most impact on enrollment. Individualizing the value and explaining the possible scenarios to potential students demonstrates the odds of higher education paying off and helps them make decisions in their own best interest. Fully realizing the value invested in education requires completing the degree, so not only does this need to be emphasized when speaking with students, but it needs to remain an institutional priority to support students through graduation and beyond.
How Much College is Enough?
The value of any higher education is, on average, greater than its cost. This statistic includes those with some college, an associate’s degree, a certificate, a bachelor’s degree, or a graduate degree. Some professions with lesser education can out-earn professions with bachelor’s degrees, so the employment outlook and pay for specific degrees can be an area for students to consider.
But there is a downside of “some college”—still owing on student loans can be painful for those who drop out before graduation. Though there are some gains from even some college, these can be more than the cost to pay back loans. And students who don’t get a degree are likely to have experienced financial hardship during school, which colleges need to address to best support students through their journey.
The ROI of a Degree
A report from Third Way showed that almost two-thirds of the bachelor’s degrees covered reported that the majority of their graduates recovered the cost of college within ten years. To a lesser degree, associate’s degrees and certificate programs also allowed students to recover the costs. Public four-year colleges had the quickest time to recoup costs, with 76% of graduates seeing the return within ten years. For private colleges, the percent that recouped in ten years was 56%, and for-profits have the worst record, with less than 40% recovering their outlay within ten years.
The emphasis recently has been on economic outcomes from college, yet these do not begin to describe the full impact of getting a college degree. College graduates have better outcomes than high school graduates in terms of health, life expectancy, older retirement ages, lower probability of being in prison, marriage and divorce, lower unemployment, community involvement, and higher levels of happiness, to name a few of the benefits. However, when prospective students think about their future earnings, it may be too abstract to be tangible. But the concrete benefits of better physical and mental health and a happier life may be more emotionally engaging. These lifestyle benefits flow from the economic impact of improved job prospects, but they are more tangible. Whether the individual makes a vast amount more after graduation or just a moderate premium over high school graduation, the benefits for their health and wellbeing are real.
The citizenship and worldliness conferred upon graduates are also real. With more participation in community and politics, an individual has a better sense of esteem and influence. The feeling of being a self-knowledgeable and influential member of society, of “belongingness” in the culture, is connected to wealth but also based on the value of education to knowledge, creative thinking, and communication. While these benefits are hard to quantify, they impact both society and individuals. Just as schools strive to provide a sense of “belonging” to all students, and especially those from underserved groups, the result of education can be a sense of ownership and responsibility within society, a strong motivator for individuals according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
A Deeper Experience of Higher Education
For a more immediate value of the education an institution provides, the experience is part of the appeal. However, it is not just about selling the “fun” of college. Students value a satisfying experience full of accomplishment, the support to reach their goals, and the personal transformation that happens during education. While all schools “sell” the experience, going deeper into the life-changing aspects of going through a degree program is what can connect the prospect to the more profound emotional experience that education can provide.
Communicating the value of education on economic terms is essential, but expanding on what financial gains can mean for an individual’s future happiness and wellbeing can help better connect with prospective students. The truth is that it is up to both students and the institutions to help lift the value for each individual by increasing graduation rates, especially for those most at-risk of dropping out and bearing the costs without the full benefits of education. Yet each prospective student will have a different perspective on what would make college “worth it.” Therefore, it is incumbent upon enrollment staff to listen, interact, and help leverage this connection with students to help them successfully begin the journey towards graduation.