Quadrupeds make lousy pets. Elephants trample people and smash the furniture; crocodiles bite off arms and legs; cows cannot be housebroken; rhinoceroses gore people. And don’t even get me started on the problems a pet giraffe can cause. So, sorry dog and cat lovers: you are part of the problem, not the solution.
I jest, of course, but with a point. If you accept the current media coverage of higher education in America, here’s the story you’ve been told:
College is unaffordable; high costs are attributable to bloated administrations and lazy faculty; students don’t learn anything and most never graduate; whether they graduate or not, they leave with staggering debt burdens of $100,000 or more; if they do graduate, they can’t get jobs; and it doesn’t matter anyway because soon all education will be online and mostly free and so most colleges are doomed to extinction. I’m sure it’s just an oversight, but reporters have not – at least to my knowledge – mentioned the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the spread of bubonic plague, or Visigoth invasions as part of this alarming tale.
We’re talking about the future of our young people here and the future of one of the greatest systems of higher education that the world has ever known. So let’s get serious. Cost and access are a realistic concern. So is academic rigor. There are some common sense measures of whether colleges and universities are doing a good job. Graduation rates are one legitimate measure. Another is the cost-benefit ratio: do graduates improve their lifetime earning capacity? Is their debt-load upon graduation reasonable given the expected return on investment? Those aren’t the only important questions, but they’re a good place to start.
Once you start looking at such measures, you are in a position to separate the dogs from the elephants; in other words, you can focus on “the big D” – “differentiation.”
Let’s take the new, mostly online, for-profit universities that are (supposedly) going to sweep away quaint little traditional schools like Muhlenberg. Their four-year graduation rates “boast” a dismal national average of 20.4 percent. What about low-cost public institutions? The national average for graduation within four years is slightly better, 31.3 percent (source). And finally, what about Muhlenberg? Our four-year graduation rate is in a totally different ballpark: 81 percent – higher if you add in an extra semester. So, if the point of going to college is to actually get a college degree, which is the best bet? Could it be more obvious?
But what about debt? Muhlenberg’s not cheap, you know! No, we’re not. But we’re still a bargain compared to the alternatives. If you were lucky enough to be among the small minority actually completing a four-year degree at a for-profit institution, your average debt would likely exceed $28,000 – and that’s true for 65% of for-profit graduates (source). Even if you didn’t finish your degree, you would still, on average, be stuck with more than $10,000 in student loans to pay off. At Muhlenberg, 42 percent of our students graduated last year with no debt at all; the average debt for those who did borrow was $23,000 – about the cost of an economy car. Unlike an economy car, however, a Muhlenberg degree will not depreciate in value, won’t guzzle gas, won’t raise your insurance rates and won’t break down.
Okay, so you have a vastly better chance of completing a college degree at Muhlenberg than the for-profit or public institutions, and the debt load – while significant – is nowhere near the six-figures we’ve been reading about in the press. Iin fact, less than one half of one percent of college graduates leave with six-figure debt (David Feldman, “Newsflash: College is a Bargain” New York Daily News, June 3, 2012). Still, is it worth it? Well, The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce thinks so. It reports that, when it comes to median life-time earnings, a bachelor’s degree will give you a 74 percent pay bump over a high school diploma ($2,268,000 vs. $1,304,000). If you take that bachelor’s degree and go on to earn a professional degree, as many Muhlenberg alumni do, the bump is more like 180 percent – $3,648,000 vs. $1,304,000 (source).
But that data reflects past decades right? College graduates aren’t getting jobs any more, are they? Well, I can’t speak for other institutions, but Muhlenberg graduates certainly are. Every year we conduct a survey of the most recent graduating class to see how they are faring in the job market. We get a response rate of 90 percent or better every year, so we’re pretty confident in our results. And every year the results are pretty consistent: one year out, around 95 percent of our recent grads are either employed or in graduate or professional school. If you’re still skeptical, compare Muhlenberg graduates’ salary statistics on Payscale.com. We stack up pretty well against the likes of Colby, Trinity, Franklin & Marshall, Gettysburg, Wellesley, Vassar and many others (source).
Okay, so what about administrative bloat? Isn’t that a problem at ‘Berg? Well…actually, we’re pretty lean. Based on IPEDs (the “Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System” maintained by the federal government), Muhlenberg’s managerial staff is about one-third that of the average of a comparison group of schools like Dickinson, Bucknell, Ursinus, Gettysburg, Skidmore, Franklin and Marshall and others. Our support staff is about two-thirds the comparison group’s average. Our faculty still teach six courses a year (in addition to advising, mentoring, committee work, and research), compared to a four or five course load at many of our peers.
Why don’t we read about these facts in the national media? Well, for one thing, they are not sensational enough to get readers’ attention. And, for another, of some 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States, only about 3 percent are small, private, residential liberal arts colleges like Muhlenberg. We’re good, in fact we’re superb, but we’re not typical.
By now, if you are a true believer in the life-changing power of the liberal arts, you may be disgusted by all this talk of return on investment. I empathize. Life is not all about work, nor can a life’s value be measured in dollars and cents.
The liberal arts equip our graduates to live their lives to the fullest, to be inspired by the arts, to comprehend mankind’s history, to appreciate diverse cultures, to create, to explore, to develop new knowledge. The stem-cell researcher who still plays the trumpet; the investment banker who coaches kids in the Special Olympics; the physician who collects contemporary paintings; the businessman who supports the opera; the accountant who immerses herself in literature; the lawyer who serves on the board of the local homeless shelter; the pastor, the social worker, the teacher and many, many others. These and about twenty thousand more Muhlenberg alumni can testify that what we do on this campus changes lives for the better, and enriches society along the way.
The numbers simply confirm what our hearts already knew. We need not apologize. We have a great story to tell – and all of us who love Muhlenberg have an obligation to tell it.
Peyton R. Helm President, Muhlenberg College