Thoughts on College Return on Investment
In all of the noise on college admissions, you have probably read feature stories on the return on investment in a college education. To me, all of these stories are nothing but noise.I have to read these college return on investment stories. That’s part of my job. But I also ask you to take them with a grain of salt.
These stories read like a directory for highly-selective, well-endowed private colleges that can afford meet the full need of any admitted student.
However, these schools deny far more students than they accept, and many are full-pay students who do not need financial aid. That’s not encouraging news for the prospective college students who are not likely to gain admission to any of these schools.
These stories do not explain how the college contributed to the success of its graduates.
Take an exceptionally selective college such as Amherst or Williams. Both schools offer admission to extremely intelligent and talented people. While the college has provided an education for each student who completed a degree, it might not have helped each student find their first job, let alone helped them on a career path.
True, some graduates might have benefited through career services, connections with alumni or a working relationship with faculty. However, a career might have been launched with a call from a parent to friends, some trial and error on the part of the recent graduate, or further education.
Return on investment stories do not help the featured schools attract the students they want.
Amherst, for example, is a powerful brand name. Its widely known in business, public and non-profit management that Amherst students are very bright and mature. But I doubt that the admissions officers will look favorably on a candidate who quotes a salary report. However, the stories can attract too many applicants who apply believing that Amherst will show them the money.
Amherst offers 38 majors. Of these only five: Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, Geology and Mathematics and Statistics typically attract employers to on-campus recruitment programs at much larger schools. True, students in all majors receive interviews from financial institutions and management consulting firms, businesses that pay high entry-level salaries. But the number of Amherst graduates in a senior class of approximately 450 students who accept such offers is small. Amherst graduates also attract offers from public and non-profit employers who pay much lower entry-level salaries. Some of these jobs, such as positions with Teach for America or the Peace Corps, are very hard to get. The hire, not the salary, is the reward. This cannot be factored into a college return on investment calculation.
If someone were to ask me, what is the “best value” in higher education, my answer would be the U.S. Military Academy aka West Point or the U.S. Naval Academy aka Annapolis. Why these two military service academies?
- Everyone gets a free education–totally free, including room and board;
- The education is a blend of liberal arts, analytics (everyone studies engineering concepts) and leadership development;
- Both schools have long histories, longer than most private or public colleges. West Point was founded in 1802, Annapolis in 1845;
- Success is totally based on merit. Wealth coming in means nothing;
- Graduates are guaranteed employment, based on their academics and other successes;
- Graduates become part of one of the most successful alumni bases in the world; and,
- Graduates are highly sought after military service because of their professional demeanor, grace under pressure and leadership skills, as well as their education and service to our country. They are also respected by the graduate and professional school community.
Of course, not everyone wants to serve in the Army or the Navy. However, every college, public or private, has its warts both real and perceived.
For those who do not want to consider a military service academy, but have some professional goals in mind, the college that will offer you the best return on investment will be the one that you can pay the least to help you achieve them. That may not be the least expensive school, period, but the least expensive one that gives you everything you want.
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Listen to my talk, College Is A Learning AND Living Community, hosted by Dr. Cynthia Colon from Destination YOUniversity on Voice of America Radio!
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