Determining ‘Value’ in Higher Education

educationBy Holly A. Bell

Last week The Princeton Review released their annual list of “Best Value Colleges”. While the Princeton Review makes their selections based on a formula that includes academics, cost of attendance, and gift aid, it does make you wonder about the definition of “best value”. Many of the colleges and universities on the list have rather high price tags. While some of the usual expensive schools were on the list including Yale, Vassar, and Reed, the top three included Bates, Colby, and Middlebury Colleges. Granted, they make up for their high tuitions with significant student grants, but what if they didn’t? Would they still be a value? How do students measure value in their educations?

How valuable was your education?

I must admit I am a graduate of one of the universities on the list. I earned my MBA from the University of South Dakota. Was it worth it? I imagine the answer to that question would be different for different students, as we tend to measure utility, or the want satisfying power of our higher education decisions differently. If I had felt it was important to have an MBA with an Ivy League label, I would probably be disappointed or, worse yet, never have gone to graduate school. But that wasn’t important to me. One of the reasons was an experience I had with an undergraduate economics professor with a Harvard Ph.D. On the first day of class he told us we were using the same textbook they use at Harvard and it was up to us whether we received a Harvard level education or not. I graduated as the Outstanding Undergraduate in Economics, so I guess I did ok. More importantly I realized I alone was responsible for the quality of my education. Where I received it really didn’t matter. But, it does raise the question about what a “Harvard level education” is and what value it adds.

So assuming no grants, what value does a high-priced education add? First, I guess there is the issue of exclusivity. If the only people going to the college are those who can afford it, you are most likely going to school with people in your own socio-economic group. I’m not sure a lack of diversity would be a selling point for me, but it might be for some. Second, there is most likely an assumption that the professors will be of a higher quality. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. One reason is that many of the professors who end up at these institutions are already well known for their research and spend a great deal of time on those efforts and not teaching or nurturing students. There’s also a possibility that their knowledge is so great they would be ineffective at teaching a freshman level course, in fact, most don’t. You might get to see the most desirable professors in a graduate program. Maybe. Many Ivy League schools remain heavily dependent on adjuncts to do as much as 80% of their teaching. Having said that, I would also argue every school has at least some excellent professors, Harvard included. Plus, some of the best instructors might be adjuncts, so I’m not sure the research history of a handful of professors in a department is indicative of the quality of teaching.

Another argument I’ve heard is that the quality of the students will challenge you to perform better. I usually try to do my best work so I’m not sure I would personally have required this motivation, but it probably would have added some value to classroom discussions.  Some people I know who went to expensive private schools claim the contacts you make with other students are valuable, although I’ve never seen any of the people who have made this argument actually call on a college classmate to take advantage of their college relationship. Frankly, for me the relationships I formed with my professors ended up being of more value to me than my classmates. Thank goodness they had time for me.

There are some other economic reasons that contribute to utility like employability, starting salaries, class size, program availability, facilities, and post-graduation debt, but I think it is probably pretty difficult for the Princeton Review to develop a model that works for everyone’s value calculation. Economists would most likely be concerned with marginal costs and marginal benefits, while most people would add a significant amount of sentiment into the decision. For example, where their parents went, the extracurricular activities available, the look and feel of the campus, the party scene, the football team, their family’s expectations, religious affiliations, political leanings, or brand identification.

For me, I feel pretty good about the value I received from the University of South Dakota. The tuition was low and the education was excellent with graduates of the MBA program finishing in the top 5% of the national major field test. I’m working in the field I want to be working in, have managed to get into an excellent DBA program, and formed relationships with professors who took the time to help and mentor students. I don’t have the same brand recognition that others might have, but so far my “pedigree” hasn’t stopped me from doing the things I intended to do with my education. We’ll see what the future brings.

Ultimately value is generally determined externally rather than internally. While I can judge the value of USD as their customer, others will judge the value of my education. You, my students, and my employers get to determine how valuable my education has been by how much value I add to their lives, education, organizations, and institutions.

How do you determine value in education?

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