The new academic school year has fully commenced, and for the 24th straight year the students at Trinity University find themselves sitting in a school ranked #1 Western regional college by U.S. News and World Report. Trinity is a fixture in the top tiers of college rankings, largely because they do not rest on their laurels, but keep raising the bar on the education and experience for their students.
Equally interesting, Trinity was ranked #1 for best value. For the past generation, the value in education was a school-to-school comparison. The underlying assumption was that having a college education was always more valuable than ending formal or traditional education after high school.
That assumption has come under attack.
With soaring college tuition cost, and a corresponding rise in post-graduate debt, it’s no wonder that some are seeking an alternative to the once-almighty bachelor’s degree. In the wake of the Great Recession, some well-educated job seekers have come to question whether their degree(s) was worth the time, energy and money.
Meanwhile, programs like Codeup offer high quality alternatives for those who believe they will benefit more from a workforce development program in high demand STEM fields rather than a liberal arts education or other four-year degree.
So, which side of the argument is supported by the data? That depends. University presidents certainly believe a university education, especially at a Tier One college, is an investment that offers a lifetime return in both earnings and quality of life.
In a New York Times Magazine article, Kwame Anthony Appiah explores the two visions of value of modern higher education. One vision is economically driven, a pragmatic approach to college as a personal asset to increase earning potential. The other vision, the more historically prevalent vision, is that college is about the formation of free and informed citizens. In this vision, knowledge applied to become civil wisdom and moral evolution is the greatest goal.
Rather than argue for one vision or the other, presidents of Trinity University and St. Mary’s University, the two local universities with high graduation rates, believe that the colleges accomplish the goals of both visions, and that well-rounded thinkers still fare well in the market, and more importantly, make the world a better place.
A recent article on the Bloomberg Business website cites evidence from a Georgetown University study in support of the four-year degree, claiming that 97% of “good jobs” created since 2010 go to applicants with at least a bachelor’s degree. The article defines a good job as those with median annual earnings of $42,700 or higher. Nearly 3 million of those jobs have been created since 2010, and all but 100,000 have gone to college graduates.
Even more interesting, the study found that there are more of these good jobs to go around.
“The researchers also found that contrary to popular narrative, the recovery has created more of these good jobs than either low-wage jobs (paying less than $25,800) or middle-wage jobs ($25,800 to $42,700),” writes Victoria Stilwell, author of the Bloomberg article.
According to Dr. Danny J. Anderson, the new president of Trinity University who came here from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, college graduates are well prepared for those initial good jobs, and more importantly, are well prepared to grow, change and innovate to stay at the forefront of rapidly changing industries.
“Colleges are providing life long education for jobs that don’t even exist yet,” said Anderson.
While Anderson appreciates programs like Codeup, which are meeting current workforce needs, he believes that the inter-disciplinary background of Trinity students will allow them to lead the industries of tomorrow.
“We want our graduates to be able to shape their path in the world,” said Anderson.
Trinity participated in a First Destination survey and provided the following statistics for the Trinity University class of 2014:
43% — employed full-time
4% — employed part-time
31% — enrolled in graduate school
4% — participating in a volunteer or service program (e.g. Peace Corps)
1% — serving in the military
Trinity’s statistics show a higher than average enrollment in graduate school, and thus slightly lower percentage of full-time employment. These may not seem like high employment numbers until you consider that these students had jobs lined up before they even graduated. That means they were never unemployed (without a job, but available to work) members of the workforce. According to studies like those conducted by the Hamilton Project, one could statistically expect the percentages to shift over time toward more full-time employment for the class of 2014, and that those jobs held by graduates will be good ones.
St. Mary’s University president Thomas Mengler cites the added benefit of personal formation living in college environment. He says that at a Catholic and Marianist university like St. Mary’s, students are able to cultivate an attitude toward work and life that will make not only industry, but also society stronger in the future.
“(For graduates of St. Mary’s University) work is something more than just a job. It’s an opportunity to make the world better,” said Mengler.
He agreed college graduates fare better right out of school, as well as over a long-term. They tend to be more upwardly mobile than their peers with only high school diplomas, largely because of the critical thinking and communication skills required in college courses.
“If you’re looking to move up within an organization into a leadership position, having a degree is indispensable,” said Mengler.
To make the case for higher education more compelling, if not more controversial, it turns out that some of those stifling debts are not as persistent as borrowers once thought.
Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that as student loan debt balloons, debt forgiveness is on the rise at well. Graduate students play a disproportionately high role, and the article implies that many borrowers only take on the debt because they know it will be forgiven.
“Critics say offering unlimited loans to students, with the prospect of forgiveness, creates a moral hazard by allowing borrowers to amass debts they have little hope or intention of repaying, all while enriching institutions and leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab,” writes Journal reporter Josh Mitchell.
This trend has many worried, and there’s no doubt that the current structure of debt and forgiveness could have some future pitfalls. A planned government subsidy might be easier to fund and maintain. With the value of higher education so inarguably evident, perhaps the question shouldn’t be, “What should we do about the mountains of debt?” but rather, “How can we make it more accessible to everyone from the start?”
*Top image: Trinity University’s Center for Sciences and Innovation. Photo by Miriam Sitz.