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A college education isn’t just about job prospects

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The national outlook on higher education, it appears, is shifting. More and more, the public is asking for a transparent approach to the way universities report their costs and the salary data of recent alumni. The specter of rising student debt is leading the college-bound and their parents to focus ever more on the payoff they can expect from a college degree.

Donald Hall

Donald Hall

The public and the president have weighed in. There is undeniable concern from prospective students, who want to know if their degrees will translate into solid job prospects and healthy starting salaries. Some universities have expressed reluctance to disclose such information, citing the burden of collecting and reporting a whole new set of data, all focused on cost.

I worry as well. Not about cost, but that we may become too focused on the bottom line and not enough on the value of a liberal-arts education.

At Lehigh University, for example, this groundswell of support for cost and salary data is greeted with pride. We’re not apprehensive about publishing such data. We already do so on our website, as do many of our peers. Instead, the concern is this: While universities should keep and disclose these data as one vital piece of information that prospective students and their families need, there’s still so much more to a liberal-arts education.

It’s certainly about more than price and return-on-investment. These are valuable data points, clearly. But the price of a house doesn’t represent the value of your home. A home is what you make of it, as is higher education. It’s a framework for your life, where memories are created, lifelong friends are met and you grow into your own person. When we discuss the state of higher education with my colleagues at other schools, or our students, faculty and staff, what we discuss more than salary data is value.

The value of a liberal-arts education lies in more than meeting salary standards. We should not lose sight of what makes the American higher-education system unique. At its best, a liberal-arts education should:

  • Prepare students with the creativity and critical-thinking skills necessary to meet the challenges of the future, some of which do not yet have job descriptions.
  • Provide greater access to students from a diversity of incomes, backgrounds and interests. To achieve more as a nation means more of our population must experience the excitement of discovery.
  • Prepare students who want to design bridges or open new markets with the same rigor as those who wish to be engineers. The world’s most profitable companies blend a variety of skills into their workforce.
  • Insist upon interdisciplinary work, so future business leaders can work fluidly with their R&D or marketing teams.
  • Encourage entrepreneurship even in the liberal arts, so that our nation’s graduates—and mid-career professionals—consider creating a job rather than simply filling one.
  • Foster an attitude of lifelong learning in a world increasingly open to the curious.
  • Connect you with your community and cultivate in you a life of gratitude and service to others, a cornerstone of the well-lived life.
  • Partner with industry and other colleges to anticipate changes in the workforce. Our curriculum should be fluid, yet tailored to what industry experts say is on the horizon.
  • Encourage students to follow their interests, which will inevitably lead to citizens inspired by their passions—a more powerful engine than “marketable skills.”
  • Provide a diversifying, mind-opening experience. New people, new cultures and a global perspective help build global citizens, who in turn help solve global problems.
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I’m not against taking a closer look at costs and alumni starting salaries. I would even suggest the nation scrutinize other data points, such as median salaries—the best universities prepare students for careers, not just first jobs—and net costs (where private institutions sometimes match or best public institutions).

Good universities prepare students for more than just a payday. At the very least, they should prepare a student for multiple jobs throughout his or her lifetime. And while it’s easier to track graduation rates and starting salaries—and they make for a fine start—we need to keep in mind that some things cannot be measured as easily. And yet they are often the things we most remember as college graduates, the things that make us rich in life that are the hallmarks of an education—enrichment not necessarily of the bottom line but of humanity.

Donald Hall is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Lehigh University.

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