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In Review

ESSAYA Better Measure of a College Education? A longtime Rochester academic leader makes the case for a more robust analysis of the value of higher education. By Peter Lennie
lennie (Photo: Adam Fenster)

The typical college graduate can readily point to how she grew and matured over her four years as an undergraduate. Parents, who send a teenager off to college as a freshman and see an adult emerge as a graduate prepared for life in a complex world, are probably even more aware of the transformation.

Colleges and universities have long been happy to take the credit for this, and for the bright future that awaits graduates. In almost every dimension of life, college-educated adults are better off than others: they’re more employed, they’re higher paid, they’re more civically engaged, they’re healthier, and they live longer.

But how much can those of us who are professionally involved in higher education legitimately claim to have contributed to this outcome?

lennieLENNIE: A comparative analysis may help sharpen ideas about the benefits of a college education. (Photo: Adam Fenster)

For most of the history of Western colleges and universities, particularly for elite institutions, the value of higher education has been considered self-evident. But it’s surprisingly difficult to articulate precisely how institutions influence the success of their students.

Consider the high school graduates who attend college: they generally have social and economic advantages over those who don’t, and these advantages propagate through college into life beyond. None of this is surprising, but it makes clear why it’s not straightforward to identify the benefits of a college education. If incoming students are already talented and often accomplished, how much difference does a college education make to their future trajectory?

Can we, as colleges and universities, do a better job not only of articulating our contribution, but also of refining the college experience so that it remains the life-changing investment so many of us believe it to be?

These are important questions for the future of higher education. To answer them well, we need to look broadly at the experience of students and graduates over the course of their lives. It’s not sufficient to limit our attention to basic measures—like average salary—that have long been popular.

Some would argue—and it’s an argument that has been recently drowning out other voices—that the purpose of education is to prepare students for jobs. Many institutions of higher education are happy to trumpet their success in this regard, and it’s undoubtedly an important indicator of value.

But major universities—especially elite ones in which the foundation of the undergraduate curriculum is a broad, liberal education that draws on the pillars of critical reasoning and analysis and effective communication—have been careful to avoid talking narrowly in terms of employment. We see our mission as equipping graduates with an armament of intellectual skills that will serve them well across the spectrum of opportunities that await them beyond college, regardless of the particular jobs they may hold.

Articulating and demonstrating that value is now more important than ever. As the costs of higher education have continued to rise and affordability has decreased, and as it has become harder for graduates to find secure, well-paying jobs, prospective students and their families have become increasingly skeptical about the value of a college education—or at least the kind of education traditionally offered by elite universities.

In a world in which skilled white-collar jobs, not to mention the professions, are increasingly in danger of being occupied by machines, it’s not enough for universities to take it as self-evident that they add value of the right kind. Colleges and universities need to address more directly the concern—reflected in burgeoning enrollments in engineering and declining enrollments in the humanities—about whether investment in a liberal education brings sufficient benefit.

The fundamental issue is a complicated one because “going to college” means much more than simply immersing oneself in courses. In describing themselves to prospective students, universities draw attention not just to the curriculum, but also to the broad range of things they offer: a favorable faculty-student ratio; research opportunities; the diversity of the student body; opportunities for community service; athletics; and many other things.

Students who spend four years at elite, residential colleges and universities often talk in similar ways about the richness of that broader experience. What they learn from rubbing shoulders with classmates from around the country or around the world and from immersion in activities outside of the classroom can be as important as what happens in it.

Which aspects of the undergraduate experience, then, are the most important? Can we disentangle key factors from less influential ones? Could we eliminate some of the things we do and (at lower cost) equip students just as well for life after college?

This is tough territory in which to be a pioneer. In part, this is because we don’t know much about the relative importance of the different opportunities we provide. It’s also fraught because the university that cuts something no other is cutting risks loss of enrollment, even if what was cut resulted in lower costs.

To untangle this problem—to better understand the relative importance of some of the things we provide for students—we can look across systems of higher education and ask whether the differences among them result in different outcomes. For example, at major universities and colleges in the United States an undergraduate degree routinely requires four years or more of study. Elsewhere (notably in the UK and many Commonwealth countries) a degree program is completed in three years.

The different durations generally reflect differences in content: the US degree is, in the liberal tradition, typically less specialized, while the UK degree is more narrowly focused. Universities in the United States generally offer residential education, housing students on campus and providing an array of facilities and services for them. Other countries (England and some Commonwealth countries as well as China) do this too, but generally less richly. The differences between the United States and elsewhere—the commitment to a liberal education and the heavy investment in residential life—make the United States a relatively more expensive place to be an undergraduate.

That invites the question of whether US graduates are better equipped for success than those elsewhere—whether their education has added greater value. To answer that question we must identify equally well-prepared students who entered universities in different countries, then look broadly at their success after graduation. Finding freshmen of comparable standing is relatively straightforward, because a great deal of comparative work has been done on secondary schooling and its outcomes in different countries. Comparing post-graduation success is harder, and brings us back to the question of how we should capture the value that a residential college education adds to the lives of students.

Discussions of value-added often focus on “learning gain,” a broad measure of the change in students’ intellectual performance over the course of their studies. Reassuringly for universities, studies indicate that students generally demonstrate considerable gains in knowledge as well as other developmental attributes while in college. Less reassuringly, we know little about the relevance of these gains to success in life beyond college.

This has led to interest in putatively more “relevant” measures, such as earnings after graduation. Several surveys, including the College Scorecard published by the US Department of Education, and others such as the PayScale College Salary Report, compare colleges and universities on graduates’ average salaries. Salary is an important measure of success, but absent context is a flawed and misleading indicator. First, the published measures take no account of the fact that some universities admit much better-prepared students than others, and those better-prepared students are likely to do better after graduation; second, for students who attend graduate school (as do a majority of Rochester students and students from similar universities), a focus on early years after graduation will catch many at points that don’t give a meaningful indication of their careers; third, measures of average salary obscure large variations across occupations, so, for example, universities that graduate many engineers will look more potent than those that graduate fewer.

These concerns lead to more fundamental questions about what we should evaluate and when to do it. If we want to measure success in equipping students for careers, surely we should be most interested not in average salaries, but in how well a university prepares its graduates for intellectually demanding occupations, not all of which are highly remunerated—and we should make our assessment when their careers are well-enough developed for their trajectories to be clear.

We want to know where people stand 10 to 15 years after graduation, what degrees they obtained, from which university or college they obtained them, their background and qualifications on entry as freshmen, and what activities they pursued. Such information is not easily gathered, though social networks, notably ones like LinkedIn, have a great deal of it and are a potentially rich source of information about where most value is added. Moreover, because social networks embrace a very broad population—including people who never attended college—their data might enable a richer characterization of the benefits of attending college.

A comparative analysis along these lines would help us better understand the value of two key attributes of undergraduate education at major US universities: the liberal curriculum and the residential experience. It might well tell us that US graduates are better equipped than those elsewhere. But that’s not enough. For the full picture, we need to compare outcomes in relation to the costs of delivering education. With such information, we would be in a position to decide whether better US outcomes were worth the investment, and we would be in a position to more clearly articulate the value of that investment—to students, to families, to policymakers, and to the public at large.

Peter Lennie, who this summer was appointed the Jay Last Distinguished University Professor, served as the Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Sciences & Engineering from 2006 to 2017. As a member of the Rochester faculty from 1982 to 1999, he was the founding chair of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. He returned to Rochester as dean in 2006 after serving as dean for science at New York University. He also served as provost from 2012 to 2016.

Lennie, who also holds a faculty appointment in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, plans to undertake a project to address the problems outlined in this essay. He will spend the 2017–18 academic year in the UK and Australia, first at the University of Leeds and then at the University of Melbourne, before returning to the Rochester faculty.