The value of a college degree

The national tone of public criticism of higher education has sharpened recently. Many in both the public and private sectors are questioning the cost of higher education, and others are questioning its value. We are being exposed through all forms of media to predominantly negative stories about higher education. As one whose life was transformed by my collegiate experience, and now as a college president, I am a bold and proud apologist for higher education, its value and its necessity to the future of our country and the global economy.

With deference to a 2017 report from the Association of Governing Boards entitled “The Business of Higher Education,” I share some facts about the economic benefits of higher education. A generation ago, a high school graduate earned 77 percent of what a college graduate earned. Today, for millennials, high school graduates will earn 66 percent of their college graduate neighbors. Over a lifetime, that is well over $1 million in additional earning for the college graduate, making the financial value proposition a good one.

However, beyond earning potential, the recent study cited other equally important benefits for college graduates: “Higher education…efficiently creates human capital that improves communities and contributes to the economic well-being of the nation over the course of graduates’ entire lives. College graduates enjoy better health, longer lives, and greater degrees of individual and professional satisfaction. … They also use the skills learned in college to foster democracy and human rights, as well as to accelerate technological advancement.”

We have witnessed recent debate within the West Virginia state legislature, as well as in many other state legislatures, concerning appropriations for public higher education. I am a supporter of both a robust public and private higher education sector, and recognize through empirical research, that investing public funds in all types of education is prudent and wise.

I offer food for thought concerning the value of private higher education to our society. Both cost and outcome for educating students in a private higher education institution is advantageous to the taxpayer. A report recently shared by the Council of Independent Colleges, authored by William Zumeta and Nick Huntington-Klein, demonstrates that a bachelor’s degree from a public institution is 6.4 times more costly to the taxpayer than a similar degree from a private college or university. For West Virginia specifically, a bachelor’s degree granted to a West Virginia student at a private college costs state taxpayers $8,099 less in state grant funding than the same degree granted by a state institution. Likewise, graduation rates for West Virginia students are 16.2 percent higher at private institutions, such as D&E, compared to state institutions. Finally, it takes 1.8 fewer years on average to graduate from a private college as compared to a state school.

Public investment in education is a statement of the values of our society. While public higher education has an important role to play, so does private higher education. Private colleges and universities produces higher graduation rates in less time, and costs taxpayers fewer dollars. I am honored to lead one such institution that is being a good steward of invested resources and transforming lives of students.

The journey continues. …

Chris A. Wood is president of Davis & Elkins College.

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