Monday, January 4, 2010

ROI is not Materialism

The New York Times recently featured a story on making college “relevant.” The basic premise is that colleges have gotten wise to the fact that students and their parents see a connection between going to college and their ability to earn a living. (Imagine that!) A connection that has been both obvious and debated for decades.

The difference between this piece and so many others I’ve read is that it does not include an impassioned faculty member arguing that the only “correct” reason for attending college is to be an educated human as opposed to the crassness of getting a job. Rather the premise of the piece is that colleges and universities have decided if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em, axing philosophy departments in favor of “anything prefixed with ‘bio’” because students have “wealth as a goal” as opposed to “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.”

“The shift in attitudes,” the article’s author writes, “is reflected in a shifting curriculum.” One could easily get the idea that more mercenary students are pushing cash-strapped institutions to change their curricula. But the article leaves out some very important context.

The source cited for more money-conscious students is UCLA’s national survey of college freshman, the largest and longest-running survey of American college students. (It started in 1966.) The same survey also found that the most important belief among entering freshman is in raising a family and that "the importance of helping others” is the highest it has been in 20 years.

As John H. Pryor, director of UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s which conducts the survey has said, “It would be simplistic to view today’s college students as materialistic because they feel it is important to be well off financially. In fact, students are also very interested in raising families and helping others, both of which are accomplished with greater ease if one is well-off financially.”

Another point of context is that the survey has also revealed that more students report they will get a job in order to cover college expenses than at any time during the 32 years this question has been asked. In addition they are more likely to use their own money to help pay for college than in years past and they are less likely to matriculate at their first choice college because of financial considerations.

With money and earning ability front and center leading up to and during a student's college years, it's no surprise that, as the article states, “Even before they arrive on campus, students — and their parents — are increasingly focused on what comes after college. What’s the return on investment, especially as the cost of that investment keeps rising? How will that major translate into a job?” But this doesn’t mean that “jobs and making money have replaced learning” as one sarcastic Twitterer commented about the article.

As a writer and communications consultant to colleges and universities, my job is to answer the question, "What makes hefty tuitions worth it?" I got into this business because I am a true believer in the power of education (from studying philosophy to bio) to change lives for the better. When students invest as much as $200,000 for that education, by necessity a better life better include being better off.

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1 comment:

Rick said...

So well stated, Andrea. And what a great title. Indeed, ROI is not materialism! Actually, the NY Times article is about 10 years late to the issue. ROI has been at or near the top of the list for families for sometime now, and most colleges have been making adjustments for years.