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A useful or a valuable degree? #highered, #admissions

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*This is the second post of several I will offer relative to the worth/value of higher education.

I think it is rather difficult to make the argument that a college degree, regardless of the institution where is was earned is not useful.

In fact, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article cited Pew Research that confirms this:

“A curious thing happened when college gradu­ates were asked about the value of their own degrees, however. In the Pew survey, 84 percent of those with degrees said college had been a good investment; only 7 percent said it had not.” (2011, Chronicle of Higher Education)

You can read the whole article here.

While I find all of this interesting and am really, really pleased that college graduates value their experience afterwards, it’s much more difficult to convince prospective students that they should look beyond a useful degree when selecting a college.

To be frank, I think it’s difficult for many to differentiate between a useful degree and a valuable degree. Some might say “big deal,” but for those of us who represent colleges priced in the top 15 percent of colleges nationwide, it is a big deal. We are challenged daily to identify those characteristics and experiences that makes us worth the price we charge.

In essence, we are challenged daily to convince prospects and parents that the degree offered by our institution is not only useful, but worth more or is more valuable than a degree offered by another college.

This is hard work!

I’ve thought about this quite a bit as the pressures mount to generate more net tuition revenue per student each year and have been attempting to frame this discussion. I’ll test some thoughts out on those of you who are reading this.

How in the world do we convince 18 year-old and their parents that the degree we offer is more valuable than the degree offered by another college?

About one year ago, Rev. Peter Marty, the senior pastor at the church I attend, delivered a sermon that got me thinking more intentionally about the differences between a useful and a valuable degree. His sermon differentiated between one’s “possessions” and “treasures.”

Pastor Marty included examples like the following:

House = possession…………..Home and family life = treasure

Job = possession……………….Having meaning/purpose in your work-life = treasure

Bank account = possession..Friends = treasure

Car = possession……………….Freedom = treasure

Religion = possession……….Faith =treasure

Calendar = possession………Time = treasure

As one could imagine, there was a compelling explanation of the subtle differences for each of these and I had several “aha” moments on that Sunday morning.  I began to connect this idea of possession vs. treasure to the idea of distinguishing between a useful and a valuable college experience.

To further my premise, I developed some example that might be accessible to everyone in understanding the difference between useful and valuable.

A bicycle is a very useful mode of transportation, but it’s not particularly valuable for a long trip or in a rain or snow storm. Isn’t a motorized vehicle a more valuable mode of transportation? There is a value difference, right?

What about eyeglasses? One can pick up a pair of stock reading glasses in any pharmacy, but if you are near-sighted those glasses are not going to be very valuable, right? A customized prescrpition is needed to make a pair of glasses valuable.

There are many other examples that could be offered, but a picture of useful vs. valuable begins to emerge with this sort of story-telling about everyday items. Is it possible to do the same in higher ed? Is it possible to make the case that one experience is more valuable that another?

I believe it is possible. And, I think it’s possible without diminishing the fact that a useful degree is useful.

Let me offer two examples that we use at Augustana to try to illustrate the difference between useful and valuable.

Studying anatomy

One could study anatomy by playing the game Operation, which might be useful to get the basics. It would be better and more useful to study anatomy by using a text book and learning from a teacher. Is would be even more useful and valuable to actually be taught by the professor who authored the text book (as would be the case at Augustana because of Dr. Bob Tallitsch’s text). And, finally, wouldn’t it be worth more to not only learn about anatomy from the author of the text being used, but to have full access to hands-on learning in a cadaver lab?

There is a different between useful and valuable. Which would you choose? Which will serve you the best over the long run?

Learning about the Mississipi River and water ecology

One can learn a lot about the Mississippi River (arguably our the country’s most important water resource) by reading available books and watching documentaries about this waterway. Reading about and watching programs about the river can be useful to those who are interested in learning more.  But, is reading and watching worth as much as learning on the river? How can one argue that actually being on the river conducting research with Dr. Ruben Heine is not worth more and more valuable than reading a book about the river or watching a documentary?

For those of us who believe in what our colleges do and believe we are worth the sticker price; we have a responsibility to prove our worth and demonstrate it in meaningful ways. We have to connect our value/worth with a student’s value.

If I were counseling a student, I’d encourage him or her to ask the following questions:

1.      Is the academic course of study rigorous enough so that I’ll graduate with a solid body of knowledge?

2.      Are the teaching practices and philosophy sound and tested?

3.      Does this college have a reputation for graduates who succeed in the paths they choose?

4.      Within the college’s expectations and requirements, is there flexibility so that I can follow my interests if they change?

5.      Does the college offer the kinds of out-of-classroom experiences I want to broaden my horizons?

6.      When I graduate, will I have a basic set of intellectual tools for my next steps, not knowing what those might be right now?

7.      When I tell people I’m a graduate of (you name the college), will that help me gain their good opinion?

For those of us who are feeling the pressure to prove our worth, we’d better have great answers to these questions.

The challenge is to make sure the degree earned from your institution is perceived to be a treasure rather than solely a possession.

W. Kent Barnds

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