All handwringing over the plight of the millennials notwithstanding, this is a great time to be graduating from college. The Great Recession is receding. Major stock market indices are achieving all-time highs. And the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that unemployment among college graduates is down to 4%, close to the level considered to be full employment, even as unemployment for those with a high school education and no college remains >8%. That is not to say that all is well. Not all millennial college graduates have found the positions and salaries they anticipated (indeed, some reports on millennial underemployment and unemployment are still fairly daunting). Additionally, employment remains unfairly distributed by race and ethnicity, and some business sectors and regions may never recover the economic activity and jobs that were lost during the downturn.
Even so the waning of the Great Recession is a good time to reassess the value of graduating college. A recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research titled Making College Worth it: a review of research on the returns to higher education has done just that. This research focuses on the economic returns on the investment that students and their families make in a college education, and demonstrates that college graduates not only have a significantly lower unemployment rate, but have dramatically higher earnings than non-graduates in the same fields. Their conclusion: graduating college is worth it.
The most important observation in this work, however, was the oddly understated comment that “It is worth mentioning the possibility of non-pecuniary benefits as well…” Indeed!
While the immediacy of the Great Recession focused attention on the economic value of a college education, decades of data suggest that the impact of a college cannot be fully measured in economic returns. Not only do college graduates make more money, but they are more likely to work in jobs that offer independence and creativity and have a greater sense of accomplishment and satisfaction with their careers. On average, college graduates are happier and healthier, live longer, and are less likely to receive disability; they have more social interactions, are more likely to attend religious services, and are more likely to marry; and they are more civically engaged, more aware of diversity, and more committed to racial understanding.
Why does college have this impact? Certainly economic security and socioeconomic class issues contribute. More important, however, is that college offers an environment in which young men and women can develop adult qualities and identities that are not delimited by defined, day-to-day job responsibilities or a determined career path.
It is estimated that today’s college graduates will have more than a dozen different jobs during their lifetimes, many in industries and positions that do not even exist today. Their world will change in ways no one can predict as computers attain human capabilities, biotechnologies blur the boundary between human and machine, global warming remodels our environment, and geopolitical, demographic, and economic forces reshape our societies. Moreover, the Great Recession of recent years was neither the first, nor will it be the last, economic disruption that will impact the expectations and experience of the millennial generation or the organizations that hire them.
The value of college does not accrue solely from the acquisition of the skills and credentials that are required to graduate into a paying job. As Bentley’s preparedness research suggests, the qualities of character that allow graduates to continually adapt to change, their ability to learn, and their aptitude to acquire new skills are recognized by employers and students alike as providing true long-term value. Therefore, it is a mistake to measure the value of college graduation just in terms of the salaries, or even the temporal success, of graduates working in jobs that, by definition, will change rapidly or even soon cease to exist. Rather the long-term value of college is embodied in the immeasurable, and perhaps un-measurable, attributes of character that will contribute to personal success when the only thing that is certain about the future is the inevitability of change.
Fred Ledley is Director of the Center for Integration of Science and Industry and Professor in the Departments of Natural & Applied Sciences and Management.