Why College Is Worth It

Confronting a growing skepticism about the value of higher education
May 14, 2013

“Why College May Not Be Worth It”—CNBC, August 10, 2012

“Saying No to College”The New York Times, November 30, 2012

“Is College Worth It?”Forbes, December 4, 2012

Headlines like these have grown common in the past year. They paint a picture of young people taking on increasing levels of debt to buy an education that yields limited job prospects and deflated dreams. Other stories use successful dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to ask whether eighteen-year-olds wouldn’t be smarter to use their college funds to start a business or travel around the world. Taken together, these media accounts suggest a growing skepticism about something that was once an article of faith: belief in the value of college education.

Of course, under these headlines are sobering truths. The price of higher education has continued to rise faster than inflation, and student debt recently reached $1 trillion, higher than credit-card debt. Student loans used to be considered “good debt”—a rational economic decision to invest in one’s future. As college costs go up, greater pressure is put on the question, Is college worth it?

Credit: Chris Hildreth.

In terms of dollars and cents, the answer is yes. There is strong evidence that an undergraduate degree remains the most valuable road to worldly success. Analysis of the 2010 census established that bachelor’s degree holders earn about $1 million more than high-school diploma holders over the course of their careers—a gap that grows to almost $3 million for holders of advanced degrees. And although the recession has dampened employment prospects across the board, it has not hit everyone equally hard. In 2012, the unemployment rate for those over 25 was 8.3 percent for people whose education ended with high school and 7.7 percent for associate’s degree holders, but only 4.5 percent for holders of bachelor’s degrees. That’s a significant measure of protection.

There is strong evidence that an undergraduate degree remains the most valuable road to worldly success.

 As we continue to await economic recovery, it’s not surprising that issues like jobs and income are at the front of people’s minds. But the emphasis on financial metrics can make us forget that college education has another, deeper value as well.

At Duke, we equip students to bring a broad base of knowledge to the task of understanding the world, and to respond nimbly and creatively in the face of new challenges. This education has payoffs far beyond the first paycheck. We prepare students to respond effectively and constructively to whatever the world will throw at them, and to lead thoughtful, meaningful lives.

As the value of our education extends beyond the financial, getting the value requires more than paying the price. The things we do halfheartedly leave little mark on us. The things we do wholeheartedly transform us and enlarge our powers. So to get the value of Duke, students have to fully invest themselves in their education. Or as we say, they have to engage.

In recent years, we have been enriching student experience by deepening opportunities to engage. Duke has more than doubled opportunities for students to do independent research with a faculty mentor.

We’ve multiplied chances to apply classroom learning to real-world problem-solving through programs like DukeEngage, the Engineering Grand Challenges, Duke in D.C., and Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Since discipline, creativity, and teamwork can be learned at play as well as in class, we’ve increased ways for students to engage in the arts, athletics, and other extracurricular activities. Because even the most informal interactions are enriching in a community like this, we have been creating new spaces for random social collision—most recently, the new meeting spaces soon to take shape within West Union’s gothic walls.

In short, we’re working to increase the value of going to Duke—but we’re also working to contain the cost. Although tuition increases help fund programmatic enrichments, we have kept increases under tight control in recent years. Meanwhile, we continue to keep Duke affordable by admitting students without regard to their family’s financial circumstance and meeting their full demonstrated need. Duke’s funding for undergraduate financial aid has risen far faster than tuition and now totals more than $120 million a year. Thanks to this investment we make in our students, the cost for undergraduates with financial need has remained almost flat, and debt levels—while never painless—have stayed in the manageable range.

Families sacrifice to send their children to Duke. This imposes an obligation on us. Duke is committed to keeping education affordable and to delivering the fullest, highest measure of value for the cost. If the current national conversation has had a positive effect, it has been to ask colleges to articulate the benefit they provide. Duke’s value lies in a deeply enriching learning environment that stimulates students, challenges them, and helps them to find the person they could become. Living up to that mission is our work here every day.