Is it worth it to go to college? A first glance at the data suggests a resounding yes. US college graduates have earned better wages than their high-school-educated counterparts for decades, and that trend has accelerated, not slowed. A survey by Pew Research Group, a nonpartisan polling firm, released this past February, found that fewer than 4% of the surveyed workers aged 25 to 32 with bachelor’s degrees were unemployed, versus 12% of those with only a high-school degree. Nine in ten of such “traditional” college graduates polled reported that their degree had already proved valuable or soon would.
But for a second and more sizeable group of late-stage learners who are older, the return-on-degree must be all the more compelling. Often carrying family-related expenses, mortgages and full-time jobs, these “nontraditional” students are investing in education to increase their earning potential or advance in their careers, and need a more certain outcome.
But as tuition and fees are rising, so are students’ fears that they won’t earn all the money back to repay costs. The sticker price of a year at a public four-year university (tuition and room and board combined) has increased by more than 37% in the last decade alone, according to The College Board, which administers the SAT, the best-known college admissions test. Current tuition and fees are estimated at almost $9,000 for a year at a public university for an in-state student, nearly $23,000 for out-of-state students, and $31,000 at private universities, according to the College Board. As a result, students are increasingly borrowing to finish their degree. The Project on Student Debt, an arm of the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success, estimated that seven in ten of those graduating in the spring of 2012 carried loans, with an average
debt load of $29,400.
Meanwhile, employers are less than impressed by the experience and skills of their college-graduate applicant pool. Nearly half of employers surveyed by Manpower for the 2013 edition of its annual Talent Shortage survey noted a lack of technical skills among applicants; another third pointed to a lack of softer skills needed to get along well in a workplace, such as public speaking and working collaboratively. Corporate spending on training is finally beginning to revive after years of budget cuts over the recession, but companies are still reluctant to invest heavily in new hires.
Rightfully, students fear graduating with a debt load, and companies are more likely to regard a new degree as a risky bet on a new hire. Universities, caught in the middle, are faced with the task of assuring both anxious parties that the investment is worth making.
A student’s return
Alice Jackson found the investment worth making twice. Last year Ms Jackson, a 47-year-old mother of four who lives in Dunwoody, Georgia, a suburb northeast of Atlanta, re-enrolled at Georgia State University, more than two decades after earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting. “After 15 years at home,” she says ruefully, “no one would even look at
my résumé.” She is now working part-time towards a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems. Full-time tuition and fees for an in-state student at Georgia State now total $10,200 a year, with books estimated at another $1,200. Ms Jackson is taking out loans to complete her degree.
She strongly believes the choice was the right one, despite the debt. The programme includes a required communication class to improve students’ “soft skills”, a one-day seminar on how to pursue jobs, and weekly networking meetings. Later in the programme, Ms Jackson will also complete an internship, when she will demonstrate her skills on-site to a company. If she is hired as an entry-level computer systems analyst, she should be in a good position to pay back her loans: the median national salary for such a position is $54,000, according to www.salary.com.
Employers are unimpressed
Students such as Ms Jackson are at a disadvantage if their potential employers don’t value their recently earned degrees. A survey commissioned in 2013 by Bentley University, a private business-focused university in Massachusetts, found 62% of business decision-makers and 66% of corporate recruiters agreeing that new hires, college graduates or no, eroded their employers’ day-to-day performance because they were poorly equipped with the softer collaborative skills required for the teambased approach that features so prominently in today’s workplace.
A 2013 survey commissioned by Chegg, an online-textbook company, compared students’ assessments of their own soft business skills—including project management, public speaking and running a meeting. In each of the 11 categories, the students’ confidence that they were “prepared” or “very prepared” to use such a skill outpaced the hiring managers’ assessment. Increasing numbers of training firms are offering soft-skills courses, perhaps as a result of this gap.
Some companies have taken steps to define what skills their employees will need by collaborating with institutions to ensure that college graduates emerge with those skills. Their input helps shape courses ranging from highly targeted technical programs that help non-traditional students shift into new fields like nursing, where opportunities are only growing, to those that teach the analytical and data-driven skills that are highly valued in today’s knowledge-based economy.
Amy Wright, vice-president of human resources at IBM Global Business Services, says her company collaborates on curriculum development with universities with which it has long-standing relationships. IBM and its peers, for example, helped prompt universities to offer analytics courses and degrees, she says, seeding today’s highly valued technical degrees
in areas like informatics, decision science and social computing. The next new trend? Continuous learning with urgency, evident through, say, evening or summer classes or shadowing a cohort. “Individuals need to change their skills and flex with the market and the business world, which is increasingly diverse and global,” Ms Wright notes. In countries where
universities rarely integrate field experience into curriculums, IBM often offers paid internships.
Universities are squeezed – what are they to do?
Some university voices are pushing back against the idea that the value of a university education should be measured by wages. “As we provide for the development and cultivation of real world skills... we must not lose sight of our more fundamental purposes, the contributions of the university to our collective and individual intellectual and moral wellbeing,”
wrote Nicholas Dirks, the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, earlier this year.
Others in academia, however, emphasise hiring successes, such as the relatively new Western Governors’ University. It promises “competencybased degrees and other credentials” and trumpets that “90 percent of employers who hire WGU graduates rate their preparation for the workforce as ‘Good’ or ‘Excellent.’” Many universities are somewhere in the middle, striving to simultaneously help their students keep abreast of industry trends, and to promote knowledge as a whole.
One broader strategy to assess the return on an investment is to collect more data on graduates’ outcomes. The state of Virginia has created a database that includes information on state college graduates’ salaries, to track the long-term effectiveness of investment in education. The Association of American Colleges and Universities, a group dedicated to promoting the value of a liberal arts education, and the State Higher Education Executive Officers’ Association are collaborating on a ninestate initiative, involving more than 60 different schools, to assess students’ learning outcomes by measuring data points including students’ quantitative literacy and critical thinking. These metrics will help shed light on how university teaching is addressing the soft-skills gap identified by employers.
And to better meet both student and employers’ needs, some schools are developing smaller, more-focused programmes that are highly valued, relevant and applicable in the workplace—and that fit student schedules. One example is the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Health and Sciences’s use of “blended learning” (in traditional and virtual classrooms) to help non-traditional students acquire knowledge in high-demand areas in a flexible format. The college’s degree courses in Health Information Research and Financial Management employ this approach. Another example is the Cyber Scholars Programme, created at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in 2013 to produce graduates ready for cybersecurity careers, in fields like computer science and computer engineering. The programme, developed with input from
Northrop Grumman, includes faculty mentors, paid internships and frequent contacts with local professionals, including formal dinners where the students can practise those important soft skills.
“[Companies] know by mentoring they’re looking at another potential employee now,” says Anupam Joshi, who directs the programme. “People recognise the value of this kind of work. We don’t have to do a very hard sell.” More and more schools are looking squarely at the challenge of making sure their graduates, and the education those graduates receive, are not a “hard sell”. The greater their focus on keeping students’ employment prospects at the center of the equation, the higher the
likelihood of assuring the return on investment for a degree.