Is Ambivalence Warranted?

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One of the topics I write and speak about regularly is the value of a college degree. While affordability is a major challenge facing prospective students, I continue to believe that there is an indisputable value in earning a college degree. I gave two presentations just in the past two weeks on challenges facing higher education. I was not surprised to be questioned about whether or not the investment in higher education is really worth it. People hear about the high costs of education and observe the continued challenges in the economy.

If you read my blog every week, you know that I am constantly referencing research that clearly supports the return on investment in higher education. Despite the anecdotal evidence to the contrary, almost every study I have read demonstrates that a college degree more than pays for itself over the course of the graduates lifetime in terms of income, professional success, community engagement and happiness.

A study published by College Summit provides even broader evidence of the value of a college degree. College Summit is a national organization that partners with high schools to help to increase the college enrollment rates of youth from low-income communities. They currently work with 180 high schools across the country helping to provide professional development, coaching, and peer influencers. This organization serves 50,000 students annually in 12 states.

Their latest research entitled Smart Shoppers: The End of the College for All Debate? not only provides evidence of the need for more and more college graduates to meet the employment demands of this country, but also that a college degree even helps in those professions typically not requiring an advanced degree. According to this report, even in careers like plumbing and hairdressing, those holding a college degree tend to earn more than their less educated peers.

But a study just released entitled, The Economics of BA Ambivalence: The Case of California Higher Education provides a more nuanced and thorough understanding of this important issue. The study uses data drawn from the University of California System, the states research campuses, and the California State University System, the less selective state college system. While this study focuses on a single state and parts of the state system (i.e., not including private, independent colleges), I think the results are widely applicable and certainly informative for all of higher education.

The authors of this study frame their research in light of the growing ambivalence towards higher education by Americans. Their understanding of ambivalence is drawn from an article written by the well- respected national commentator, Ron Brownstein, which appeared in the National Journal Magazine on September 29, 2012. The article was entitled, Struggling to Advance, and responded to the reality that a majority of Americans now define success as not falling behind. They worry that fundamental changes in the economy are making it more difficult for them—and their children—to get ahead.”

Referencing polls conducted by the Heartland Monitor, Brownstein writes,

“The most fundamental question about the next generation evokes the most unease. Asked if today’s children will have more opportunities than older Americans, only 32 percent said yes. In the four times the Heartland Monitor has tested that question since 2009, no more than one-third of Americans have ever said they expect the next generation to enjoy greater opportunities. In the new poll, an equal 32 percent said they believed today’s children will have less opportunity to get ahead, while the remaining 31 percent said their opportunities would be unchanged. As in earlier surveys, whites remain far more pessimistic than minorities: Just 25 percent of whites believe the next generation will have more opportunity than our own, while 38 percent expect their opportunities to diminish. (College-educated whites are as pessimistic as noncollege whites, who have borne larger job and income losses in recent decades.) By contrast, 51 percent of minorities believe today’s children will have more opportunity than they did, while only 20 percent believe they will have less.

Those anxious responses partly reflect ambivalence, especially among blue-collar whites, about the economic value of a college education. Although studies show that workers with college degrees earn significantly more money over their lifetimes than those without one, just 38 percent of those polled said they viewed a college education as a ‘ticket to the middle class,’ while 54 percent said it was ‘an economic burden that is often too expensive and requires taking on debt to pay for.’ Three-fifths of both whites with college degrees and minorities (with and without degrees) saw such education as a source of advancement, but whites without a college degree split in half on whether the benefits of college justified the cost.”

Next week I will share the results of this study. A college degree is definitely worth it, but the issue may be more complex.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Saturday, 19 April 2014