SJR Column, College is Worthy Investment, October 2012

Chancellor Susan J. Koch
Sunday, October 7, 2012

As I walked through Chicago’s Union Station several days ago, this Newsweek headline caught my eye: “Is college a lousy investment?” The article, by a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and blogger, cites familiar data. “The price of a college education has doubled since 1995.” “The amount of student loan debt has more than quintupled since 1999.” The author concludes that investing in a college education may not be worth it for an increasing number of young people today.

As a university Chancellor, I share the author’s concern about increasing college costs and we’re providing more financial aid and scholarships at UIS to make college more affordable; but despite our shared concerns I am moved to a conclusion that differs from the Newsweek writer.

According to the College Board, a non-profit organization committed to excellence and equity in education, college graduates continue to earn significantly more than people with only a high school education regardless of ups and downs in the economy. They also are more likely to have jobs with employee-provided health insurance and have higher job satisfaction.

Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that people with a bachelor’s or graduate degree have higher earnings and lower unemployment than those with less education. The College Board also reports that college graduates are more likely than those with only a high school diploma to exercise regularly and to vote and volunteer. College graduates are also less likely to smoke or be obese.

But in addition to those advantages, in my nearly three decades in higher education I’ve also seen the less measurable, but deeply transformative power of the college experience. I’ve seen students learning to be critical thinkers, actively evaluating information and drawing conclusions based on reasoning and reflection. I’ve seen students taking risks, stretching far beyond their own expectations; experiencing both failure and success and the valuable lessons learned from both. I’ve seen students developing lifelong friendships across cultural boundaries that would have been unheard of in their parents’ generation. I’ve seen students honing communication and collaboration skills by volunteering in the community – at the same time they are balancing a full load of courses and a part-time job. Again and again I’ve seen students come to realize that, though gaining the credential is important, becoming an educated person is the real purpose and the real benefit of attending college.

So my answer to the question, “Is college a worthwhile investment?” is a resounding “Yes;” but I’ll add a couple of qualifiers to make this a little more complicated. Experience has taught me that college works best for students who are motivated to be there. That sounds obvious; but the fact is that some students aren’t and an unfortunate transcript of D’s and F’s is often the result. A 2009 New York Times article reported that, though few make the choice, students who had taken a “gap” year between high school and college arrived on campus “wiser and more mature.” Sometimes a year or so of growing up before starting college does wonders.

Experience has also taught me that finding the right institution, the one that matches your particular preferences and circumstances (including financial ones) make a big difference. UIS, for example, is the smallest of the three campuses of the University of Illinois, with a teaching-focused environment, high expectations for student engagement and a tradition of educating public servants and leaders. UIS is also one of only two universities in Illinois ranked by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance as a top 100 best value –an important measure of affordability. Just right for some, but not necessarily for all.

Some students start their college studies at a community college and that may make sense for them. The Springfield area benefits greatly from the presence of both the University of Illinois and Lincoln Land Community College and we need to collaborate effectively with each other to provide students with the richest possible educational options and a smooth transition from one institution to the other.

For prospective students of any age, visiting a variety of campuses and having thoughtful conversations with current students, counselors and other advisors is an important step in finding the right college match.

I am confident that the vast majority of the 30,000+ graduates of UIS would agree that earning a university degree has most definitely been a worthwhile investment and we’re committed to making that experience accessible for many more students in the future.