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Cal students at UC Berkeley on Friday, April 10, 2015.
Credit: Alison Yin/Hechinger Report

The demand for colleges and universities to justify their existence is greater than ever before.

Parents and their students aren’t defining this demand in terms of the critical-thinking and leadership skills that broadly educated individuals gain. Rather, they are using as their gauge the size of the paychecks that students earn soon after graduation.

This is understandable. The average cost of a private-college education has risen 157 percent in the past 20 years, after adjusting for inflation, while out-of-state and in-state public tuition and fees have increased 194 percent and 237 percent, respectively.

Looking at the value of a college education through this lens is fueled in part by a 2015 Georgetown University study, which found that college graduates tend to earn an average of $1 million more than high school graduates over the course of their working lives.

By trumpeting this figure, higher-education leaders — perhaps unknowingly — have advanced a singular focus on the earning power of a college degree when it is, in fact, worth so much more.

Related: New research questions the value of certificates pushed by colleges, policymakers

Of course, even cursory knowledge of markets quickly leads to the realization that investing the equivalent of a college education in a low-risk, conservative portfolio for 60 or 70 years would yield better financial results.

Simply raising that point — as many have with me — highlights the fact that we, as educators, have yet to lay out a compelling narrative that recasts the value of a college education as much more than dollars and cents.

“The adaptability enabled by a college education is more vital than ever before in a global economy that increasingly relies on robotics and automation in careers that have provided steady employment for so many in the workforce.”

The value of a college education is in many ways both philosophical and practical. Yes, we want our students to thrive in the professional world, but we also want them — and, as a society, need them — to grow intellectually as critical thinkers and innovators capable of solving the world’s most pressing challenges, such as race and gender disparities, income inequality and climate change.

But somewhere along the way, the intangible philosophical benefits have become overshadowed by the easier-to-calculate value of a paycheck.

To be clear — we are obligated to prepare students to land their first job successfully.

The reality, however, is that job will be the first of many. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even baby boomers like myself average more than ten jobs before they turn 50.)

The adaptability enabled by a college education is more vital than ever before in a global economy that increasingly relies on robotics and automation in careers that have provided steady employment for so many in the workforce.

Countless jobs that are here today will be gone tomorrow, figuratively and literally. Will we have done enough to ensure our graduates are ready for the uncertainties ahead?

We also must not ignore the fact that this is just one component of the educational equation. Happily, many, if not most, graduates want not only to be successful at work but at home and in their communities, and active citizenship requires a broad understanding of diverse topics and complex issues.

Related: The threat of Big Brother undermines a push to gather data about college student performance

Focusing the conversation on finances alone can have other unintended consequences. For many low-income families, the sticker price of a college education can seem out of reach and discourage even high-achieving high school students from applying to top institutions. Fortunately, many schools are increasingly investing in expanding access to a college education.

At Bucknell, for instance, we recently partnered with many other leading institutions in affirming a commitment to economic diversity by joining the American Talent Initiative. We raised $513 million through a comprehensive fundraising campaign, $180 million of which is designated to support the growth of financial-aid resources.

The lifelong economic benefit that a college graduate will realize is a welcome byproduct of earning a degree, but it cannot be a primary motivator in the pursuit of a higher education. Relying solely on dollars and cents to convey our value does not comport with our broad mission.

When the question of return on investment is asked — and it will be, again and again — we must articulate the enduring value that comes from the college experience.

We must be able to demonstrate that higher education enables the freedom and flexibility for students to explore and define their passions.

Our students’ time on our campuses will equip them with the ability to identify and pursue meaningful success that will ultimately improve our communities and, through those efforts, society as a whole. I can think of no nobler endeavors in which to invest.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

John Bravman is president of Bucknell University.

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