1. Opinion

Column: Colleges are more than sticker prices, salaries

Published Aug. 23, 2013

It is deeply disappointing when the president of the United States opines about college costs in simplistic and finger-wagging terms, echoing the sensationalism of pundits and the media as they discuss the "reform" and "lasting change" needed in higher education.

Delivering a high-quality education, particularly one focused on helping teenagers become responsible adults, is expensive. It is also the kind of education that has made American colleges and universities renowned as the best in the world. To assess the value of a college or university degree in such narrow and unsophisticated terms as the salaries of graduates or a college's sticker price — which is only rarely the actual price paid — is nothing less than shameful political pandering.

Assessing the value of a college education is far more complex than using salaries or sticker price as measures of its worth. A better metric for the value of higher education is the growth of knowledge, judgment and character developed during the college years.

A better way to gauge the value of the college experience is illustrated by the National Survey of Student Engagement, which is completed by first-year and senior students. The survey identifies areas where colleges and universities are performing well and where they need improvement. It addresses synthesis of ideas, complexity of interpretations, formulation of judgments about the value of information and the application of knowledge to new situations — the very skills business and nonprofit leaders want, according to a recent national survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Ninety-three percent of those surveyed say that "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than (a candidate's) undergraduate major." Nine out of ten of those surveyed say "it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and the capacity for continued new learning."

Overall, the study showed that 80 percent of employers agree that, "regardless of their major, all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences;" furthermore, 74 percent "would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today's global economy." Such data suggest a much more thoughtful alignment between what the business world says it wants and needs than the simplistic "rankings" of which President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are so fond.

Our first-year students at Eckerd College, this year representing 43 states and 24 countries, participate in a three-week Autumn Term. When they and their families, emotionally and physically exhausted from the strains of travel, residence hall move-in, and visits to area discount stores, come together for our opening ritual, the Ceremony of Lights, I tell them that college is the time when most of us build the lives — not just the intellectual equipment, but the lives — we will live as adults. I also tell them that the world of high purpose, of true learning and the responsible self-governance on which democracies absolutely depend, swings its doors open wide for them.

Students' contributions to our world — including service to our country, our communities, our schools and those in need around the world — and colleges' success in preparing them, should not be measured by the salaries they will earn, but by the contributions they will make to build a better world. Scores of Eckerd College parents repeatedly tell me with great enthusiasm that they see and value the impact of the college experience in their children. Ultimately, is there any better barometer of success?

Donald R. Eastman III is president of Eckerd College, a private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.