There’s been a lot of talk going around about the “return on investment” in higher education; any Google search will turn up a plethora of articles about whether college is worth it, which majors are getting jobs and earning the most money, and the mountains of college debt that young graduates are accruing. The drive to have this conversation is understandable. College is expensive. That's why Vermont Campus Compact is invested in programs that address college access – we do believe that higher education has a responsibility to make college more accessible and affordable, especially for those who typically wouldn’t see it as an option.
That said, I think we need to be careful about the extent to which we are equating the return on investment in college with the salary that students report following graduation. Likewise, I think we need to be careful about advising students toward certain majors based only on potential financial reward. Whether we are educating accountants, engineers, teachers, or artists, I believe we need to ensure they have the opportunity to: a) find a major or a career about which they feel passionate; b) learn transferable skills that will help them to be flexible and qualified when a new career path becomes available (whether or not it’s related to their major); c) be well-prepared for successful post-graduate life beyond employment (including community engagement and personal satisfaction). With careful thought and intention, these goals can be met in any academic discipline. Following that argument, I believe the entire college experience, not just the major you choose, should be included when we talk about what you “get out of” college.
So where does my work at Vermont Campus Compact come into this? I believe that civic engagement initiatives can and should be a big part of the puzzle when it comes to the relevance and value of higher education. Why? Because involving college students in civic engagement activities contributes to both individual interests and public interests - in essence, these initiatives double our return on investment. This was the topic of our discussion at a recent Vermont Campus Compact network meeting. We brought together more than 25 representatives from member campuses, including those who work in community engagement and those who work in career or alumni-related initiatives. Listening to discussions that day, I was struck by our group’s ability to identify a three-part description of the relationship between our various areas of work:
- Because of the pressures being faced by higher education institutions, there is sometimes tension between narrow career outcomes (as measured through job placement and salary information) and perceived “softer” civic outcomes of higher education (in terms of civic learning and community participation);
- The idea of fostering “civic professionalism,” and the ability to come to agreement on our common goals when it comes to student skills, offer us the opportunity to build a bridge between these outcomes;
- In order to do so, we need to focus on being more explicit, articulate, and intentional about these common goals.
I think we can reframe the “return on investment” in higher education from both a personal and public perspective if we can find a way to re-define what we mean by success after graduation. Blurring the lines between civic engagement and career success is a piece of that re-framing. I challenge those of you who were with us at that meeting, as well as those of you who are reading about our conversation, to discover new and creative ways to find the intentionality that we seek. Please share your ideas with each other as we build toward our common goals.
For more on the intersections between community engagement and career development, see Battistoni & Longo’s white paper: http://www.northshore.edu/ppi/pdf/wp_workforce_development.pdf.
For an outstanding commentary on the relevance of the liberal arts, I encourage you to check into this recent video from President Ellen McCulluch Lovell of Marlboro College about how we measure return on investment and the value of the liberal arts education: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrN64Bb8X7Y.