College: The Path to Opportunity and Prosperity
President Drew Faust, who is visiting Mexico City and Dallas this week for Harvard Campaign events, was scheduled this morning to deliver an address on the value of higher education. The speech is part of a week-long focus on the issue for the president, who also conducted an e-mailed exchange with the Dallas Morning News, published earlier, and had an op-ed based on the speech in USA Today.
The venue for her speech is the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, before an audience of students, teachers, counselors, and administrators from throughout the Dallas school district. (The venue was perhaps resonant for Faust, who grew up in Virginia during the tumultuous era of Brown v. Board of Education and desegregation and has lead a life in academia and higher education: the school was established a “Colored School No. 2” in 1884, assumed the Booker T. Washington name in 1902, and became an arts magnet school after the Dallas system was desegregated under court order in the mid 1960s. As she noted in the text of her speech, as prepared for delivery, Washington received the first honorary degree conferred on an African American by Harvard, in 1896.)
Update October 27, 9:15 a.m. There is another Harvard connection to Booker T. Washington school. The late Ignacio "Nash" D. Flores III, M.B.A. '67—an involved Harvard alumnus who won the Hiram Hunn Award in 2004 and the Harvard Alumni Association Award in 2010—led the fundraising to rebuild the school's campus. His service to Booker T. Washington is prominently mentioned in this Dallas News obituary notice from a year ago.
The news advisory for the event said, “In the context of growing national concerns regarding the costs of higher education, student-loan debt, and earning power after graduation,” Faust would “make a strong case for the continuing value of a college education, and its connection to opportunity and prosperity.”
In the text of her remarks, she addressed the question head-on this way:
To ask “Is college worth it?” is a fair question too, and a lot of people around the country are asking it. To me, the answer is easy: yes. Going to college is one of the best decisions you will ever make.
“There is no doubt that college pays off financially,” Faust noted, citing statistics about lifetime earnings, starting salaries, and the extra advantages conferred on women who earn undergraduate degrees, compared to those who do not.
Turning to civic life, she continued,
College graduates also tend to lead more active lives. They vote more often. They volunteer far more often. As early 20th-century civil rights activist Nannie Burroughs put it, education is “democracy’s life insurance.” College graduates are also more likely to own a home. They are healthier and less likely to smoke. Their children are more likely to go to college.
She then enumerated “the benefits of college that are harder to measure,” which she outlined as:
- First, college will take you to places you’ve never been before.…College is a passport to different places, different times, and different ways of thinking. It is a chance to understand ourselves differently, seeing how our lives are both like and unlike those of people who inhabited other eras, other lands.
- Second, college introduces you to people you’ve never met before.…One of the most important ways in which students learn, at colleges and universities everywhere, is by interacting with people who are different from themselves. If you go to a residential college, your roommate might be from Texarkana, or Toledo, or Taipei.
- Third, college helps you to discover dreams you’ve never dreamed before. College can offer you the satisfaction of hard, intellectual work—a paper or a project or an experiment you are proud of. It also teaches you the power of imagination. It urges you to dive down deep into yourself, and the results are often surprising.…College opens doors you did not even realize were there. It challenges you to think.
- [Fourth,] college teaches us to “Think Slow.” No one denies the value of speed, connectivity, and the virtual world in an economy that thrives on all three. But college can also help you to slow down.…College teaches you to sift through an enormous amount of daily information, to assess it, to use it critically. In other words, you learn to reject information as well as receive it.…A quality college education teaches you how to begin to educate yourself, a project that will last the rest of your life. It offers a laboratory of possibility.
In her summation, Faust summoned the example of the late Harvard crew coach Harry Parker, whose challenge (“This is what you could be. Do you want to be that?") figured in her address launching The Harvard Campaign in September 2013:
I have called this speech “the case for college” because I believe that college changes lives. It opens opportunities, reflected in the statistics I recited earlier. Perhaps even more important, it opens minds and worlds—in ways that stretch us—almost pull us—to become different people. I often ask students as they are approaching graduation how they are different from when they arrived at college. They say they know more. They frequently say they found a passion they had never imagined—a field, a profession to which they intend to devote their lives. But what is most important, they often tell me, is that they have a new way of approaching the world, through the power of learning, analyzing, changing to adapt to what they’ve come to understand. And so I leave you with a question: “Who can you be? Do you want to be that?” Wherever you go, whatever you do next, take up that challenge. Ask that question. You deserve no less.
In the more nitty-gritty Dallas Morning News e-mail exchange, Faust made these points in response to questions:
On the value of education versus the expense:
The student debt issue is real, and it is entirely understandable that students and families are asking: Is college the right path? What are the long-term benefits? Every family circumstance is different and different institutions approach financial support in different ways….While there is no doubt that college graduates earn a great deal more money than those who didn’t attend college—roughly 15 percent per year, according to a recent study, or 60 percent over a lifetime—a host of other benefits must be considered.
College graduates, for instance, live longer, healthier, more active lives, on average. College graduates take away a set of experiences, perspectives and ways of thinking about the world that will enhance their lives immeasurably. And those experiences can help students not just for the jobs that they take right after graduating, but for jobs and even entire industries we’ve yet to imagine.
On the factors causing college costs to outpace general increases in the cost of living:
Across the country, college costs…continue to rise as average wages for low- and middle-income families stay flat.
There are many factors behind this trend, and we can’t pretend that there is any one easy fix, but we also must recognize that underinvestment in public higher education is a serious issue. Over a decade, state and local educational appropriations per full-time student have fallen by more than a quarter. When public colleges do not receive the funding they need from state government, they raise tuition costs instead. This process—which has played out over years—is a real threat to the strength of a number of great state university systems.
On political demands to make public universities accountable for their spending:
[W]e should be very thoughtful about the metrics, as some can be quite misleading. When we consider the value of a college education, we should think hard about what it is we value.
For instance, the federal government has proposed, among other things, to measure the value of college by the starting salary of a graduate during his or her first year in the workforce. After graduating from Bryn Mawr College in 1968, I worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Based on my fairly paltry starting salary, one could have said that the money my family invested in my college education had been wasted. But I went on to attend graduate school, became a professor of American history and was ultimately appointed president of Harvard University. I’d argue that college prepared me for a lifetime of opportunity.
On student career decisions, in light of persistently flat starting salaries for graduates:
Families in Texas and across the nation share significant concerns about choosing a college and thinking about a major. Particularly since the Great Recession, many families ask how a chosen field of study will help pay the bills. Employers are certainly looking for technical skills, but they also have broader concerns. Last year, Accenture conducted a survey with business leaders and asked them what their companies looked for in employees. More than two-thirds of respondents highlighted skills such as creative thinking, communication, leadership and problem solving.
Those strategies are at the heart of a broad liberal arts education. At Harvard College, for instance, engineering is one of our fastest growing… concentrations….We see engineering as embedded in the liberal arts and require engineering students to study the sciences, social sciences and the humanities. As a result, these students graduating from Harvard are ready to become first-class engineers. But they also have the broader intellectual framework to ask critical questions about their work.
“Just because we can do something, should we? And what will it mean? Is there a better way to do this?” That type of thinking will make them more attractive in the job marketplace, and can also empower them to go in different directions as new and unforeseen opportunities arise over their lifetimes.