Creating Value for College Students and a Return on their Educational Investment

By President David Harpool, JD, PhD

There is, appropriately, a robust amount of discussion about cost of higher education as well as the value of a college education. Occasionally, that conversation will extend into the difference between “cost” and “affordability.” What is surprisingly lacking from much of this conversation is a discussion on the concept of “value” and measuring a student’s overall return on their educational investment. Cost is what education providers charge for their services. Value is what students determine, sometimes years later, the education they received is worth to them.

One of the emerging trends in response to the cost and value debate is the micro-credential movement.  Clearly there is a place for micro-credentials in higher education, especially if they lead to or “stack” in a credential and degree. The problem with micro-credentials is that, like majors, minor, concentrations and emphasis, the content is often outdated soon after it is earned. The knowledge has an increasing limited shelve life.

That’s why NCU prefers to focus on value. Value is not measured simply by how fast a student begins to earn an income after graduation or how soon that income exceeds the cost of their education. Both measures are important, but incomplete.

If an educational program has genuine value, graduates will have mastered the latest disciplinary content, but also critical thinking, problem-solving, effective communication, ability to adapt to new technology and learn new skills, and, perhaps most important, the ability to keep learning. Those outcomes assure students that they can adjust and adapt to an ever-changing discipline, profession, and world.

The value of a higher education cannot be assessed—nor should the cost to provide such services be evaluated—with the same model you would evaluate a commodity. Commodities are a product that can be bought and sold, such as copper or coffee, not a service and process that requires a person to grow, evolve, and mature. One size may fit all for similar commodities, but not for a genuine education of value. Low cost may be a strategy for producing commodities, but it is not a strategy, in and of itself, for assuring quality-based educational outcomes.

A university education shouldn’t cost more than necessary to create it, it should be as affordable as possible, and it should provide a return on investment—socially, emotionally, and economically—for a lifetime.

In other words, a genuine education should be of value.