Redeeming the Value of Higher Education

Albert ChengThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

In an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, Captain Kirk and his crew meet Rayna, a character who has “the equivalent of 17 university degrees in the sciences and the arts.” Her intellect, as well has her demeanor and beauty, quickly captivate the landing party of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Even more impressive is that Rayna’s tutor mentions that she was orphaned while still an infant.

With such depths of knowledge and a disadvantaged background to boot, Rayna’s alma mater would likely make much about her accomplishments if she were living in the present-day U.S. Someone with such human capital possesses potential for a great lifetime of achievements. What postsecondary institution would not want to brandish Rayna as a poster child of their educational impact?

Being at a university myself, I understand why someone like Rayna is valuable. I understand the need and allure of chasing specific metrics — graduation rates, student debt repayment rates, employment outcomes, fundraising, U.S. News & World Report rankings, and the like. Meeting benchmarks on these metrics is tied to attracting students and advancing the institution. Talks of closing Christian colleges are real and must be addressed.

However, an untempered focus on these metrics narrows and distorts conceptions of the value of higher education. A broader conversation about the aim of education is in order. It’s not just about, say, job prospects. It’s also about discerning vocation and finding formative connections on campus that affect family and community relationships after graduation.

In a recent Cardus study entitled, “What Do They Deliver? A Report on American Colleges and Universities,” my fellow Cardus Senior Fellow, David Sikkink, and I set out to do just that. We surveyed a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults with four-year degrees and compared graduates from public, private nonreligious, and private religious institutions on a variety of post-graduation outcomes.

Based on conventional labor-market outcomes, one might question the value of private religious institutions. For example, we found that graduates of private religious institutions had average household incomes of $64,000—a figure that is $13,000 and $5,000 less than incomes of graduates from private nonreligious and public institutions.

However, we also found that graduates of private religious institutions thought about vocation differently. Two-thirds of these graduates indicated that it was “very or extremely” important to have a job that directly helped others, compared to 55 percent of graduates from other institutions. Moreover, graduates of private religious institutions were over three times more likely to indicate that it was “very or extremely” important to have a job that fulfilled a religious calling. They were additionally more likely to volunteer in their community and feel a moral obligation to take action against poverty or injustice. These outcomes are not captured by conventional metrics but are critical.

We suspect that the campus community played a formative role for graduates of private religious institutions. Indeed, we found that these graduates reported the highest levels of faculty support, sense of belonging, and participation in many aspects of campus life. The tightly-knit, communal nature endemic to many private religious colleges and universities can be an important educative asset. That feature is not something to be shy about and it might make all the difference. Consider Rayna again (minor spoiler ahead).

Captain Kirk and his crew eventually learn that Rayna has a glaring problem: Her education did not cultivate emotions. She was unable to love. Her education was focused on information rather than formation–a recipe for malformation.

Rayna is to be celebrated if the value of higher education is rooted in the conventional metrics. Yet that approach is not solely how many parents and potential students think of the value of higher education. In fact, over half of religious private school graduates whom we surveyed selected their institution because of its distinctive religious mission. Even so, I understand the pressure to conform to the reigning utilitarian ethic when it comes to postsecondary education. Money matters. In a high-pressure culture where competition for good careers is fierce, it is natural to question the value of an education that doesn’t give a student a competitive edge in the labor market. Yet, as with Rayna, so with ourselves and our children, we know that postsecondary education is so much more than just one more tool in the race to get ahead. Perhaps universities and colleges themselves need to make that case more boldly, to recast and redeem the value of higher education.

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