Over the past month, we’ve heard about President Obama’s plan to make higher education more affordable and his proposal for a performance rating system. This has sparked debate both inside and outside of higher education, and it has led many to ask a simple question: Is a college degree worth it?
In light of educational costs and the $1 trillion in student loan debt in this country, the question is valid. I am sure it is being asked by both parents and students as high school graduates don their caps and gowns and make decisions about their future.
According to a recent Nielsen Newswire report, the answer is “yes.”
The article, “Education is an Investment for the Future Around the Globe” stresses that the road to better jobs, more money and improved lifestyles is paved by education. The Nielsen survey, which included 29,000 respondents from 58 countries, revealed that 78 percent of them agreed that receiving higher education is important for a better life. In addition, approximately 75 percent of respondents said college education leads to better employment and 72 percent concluded that a college degree equals a higher income both immediately after graduation and over a lifetime.
Based upon our strong fall enrollment numbers at College of DuPage, we concur. Nationally, however, the answer is a bit fuzzier.
A recent study by Farleigh Dickinson University reports that 43 percent of registered voters in New Jersey said the cost of a college education is no longer worth it.
In addition, The Wall Street Journal boldly discussed the Diploma’s Vanishing Value, and conservative political theorist Bill Bennett recently stated in a U.S. News and World Report article that much has changed over the past five years in terms of students heading directly to college after high school without passing go.
Bennett noted that “oddly, a lot more of the public has questions about whether it’s worthwhile to go (to college). In 2008, 81 percent of adults thought college was a worthwhile investment. This year, 57 percent think so.”
Other headline-grabbing stories like this one may reflect a fashionable position to take at the moment. But does it really reflect a national mood?
Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post argues that education is worth it and that there should be no debate about it. In addition to the many facts he cites, including that people with college educations earn more over their lifetimes than people without them, he ends by quoting a report that states a college graduate’s life satisfaction is higher. In addition, a recent article in CNN Money cites a study that at the ripe age of 22, the average college grad earns about 70 percent more than the average person with just a high school diploma.
The Gallup Business Journal is in full agreement with this assessment and goes a step further, focusing on happiness and contentment in relation to a person’s career achievement.
In its own surveys, Gallup has determined that career well-being is the most important predictor of a person’s overall well-being.
In fact, in every country that Gallup has surveyed, people said a good job trumps everything and that it’s not about salary but about liking what you do.
The article suggests that it’s important for educational institutions to measure long-term value among its former students in regards to career well-being.
The data then can be used in a variety of ways, such as incorporating experiential and
project-based learning, internships or mentorships into a degree program.
According to the Gallup report, it is extremely important that higher education institutions help to train, educate and steer both adult and
traditional age students toward a satisfying
career.
An important issue still lies in a college’s responsibility to churn out students who are trained and ready to enter their career of choice. Credentialing has been center stage in the educational arena lately more than ever due to the onset of varietal modes of learning, from online to hybrid courses. In response, there are entire companies that are popping up to offer “proof” of learning and bolster a student’s resume. For example, media giant Mozilla has just unveiled its new Open Badges program where individuals collect “medals” for educational completions — ironically, the first one being a medal for completing the Open Badges survey about education. The goal of this foray into credentialing is to give both students (and teachers) recognition for participation in every venue and type of learning out there.
Credentialing and the idea of just “growing numbers for the sake of growing numbers” of college graduates is extremely worrisome.
I fear that President Obama’s proposal will have an adverse effect on the words “value” and “worth,” tying them to cost rather than long-term gain and the life-value achieved by earning an associate or bachelor’s degree.
It would be detrimental if these benefits of higher education became secondary in the race to boost graduation rates.
In fact, the Gallup story states that the measurement of value should not be a ranking system at all. After 33 years as a community college president, I know that a college education is worth it.
It is up to both two- and four-year schools to make sure students, prospective students and their parents recognize the intrinsic value in what is offered through the attainment of a college diploma, while at the same time making sure we arm our students with the skill sets needed for success in the increasingly competitive workplace.  

• Robert L. Breuder is president of College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.