The Value of Higher Education
By Paul Grondahl, M.A.'84
UAlbany President Robert J. Jones joins four other college and university presidents and a school district superintendent – all UAlbany alumni – to discuss the importance of higher education.
Robert J. Jones, Ph.D.
President, University at Albany
ith higher education under intense scrutiny, the value of a college degree is being questioned like never before. For generations of Americans, attending a four-year residential college was part and parcel of the American dream, a path that led to a career with upward mobility and often a rise in social class, as well. For working-class families, in particular, a college degree was the great equalizer and a portal to opportunity. Now, however, naysayers point to escalating tuition costs, mounting student debt, stagnant graduation rates and uncertain job prospects as arguments against the primacy of a college degree.
College presidents are battling on many fronts against the forces undercutting higher education. For this article, University at Albany President Robert J. Jones, Ph.D., and four college presidents and the superintendent of a large suburban upstate New York school district – all UAlbany alumni – added their voices to this important discussion, conceding that they have never felt such intense questioning about the importance of higher education. “Unprecedented” and “crossroads” are among the words they used to describe such disturbing trends as declining government funding, a boom in online learning and concerns that high tuitions are pricing middle-class families out of the market.
"The ultimate purpose of higher education is to give students a broad base of knowledge and skills, rather than to train them for a specific job," said Jones.
On the other hand, the presidents cite statistics to bolster their argument. For instance, despite a lingering recession, the unemployment rate for college graduates with bachelor’s or advanced degrees was 3.8 percent compared to 7.4 percent for high-school graduates, according to a May 2013 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A 2012 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that, between 2010 and 2012, people with bachelor’s or graduate degrees gained 2 million jobs, while those with high-school diplomas, and those with less than a high-school education, lost 230,000 jobs over the same two-year period. That same study confirmed that, on average, college graduates still earn nearly twice as much as high-school graduates over the course of their working careers – a stark wage disparity existing since 2005. At the same time, such narrow assessments of return on investment fail to recognize the less-tangible benefits of a college degree, such as civic engagement, societal contributions and a richer understanding of the world.
Mitchell College President Mary Ellen Jukoski congratulates a recent graduate.
“The ultimate purpose of higher education is to give students a broad base of knowledge and skills, rather than to train them for a specific job,” said Jones, who attended three national forums since May to discuss the “perfect storm” of forces challenging higher education. “We need to prepare students who possess analytical and critical skills and also have the entrepreneurial ability to shift jobs several times. We need critically engaged citizens who can reinvent themselves for jobs that, in some cases, don’t even exist today. I get worried about this growing trend of trying to commoditize higher education. We are a four-year public university at UAlbany, and we’re not meant to be a technical school that offers training for a specific job.”
"There is no doubt in my mind that the higher education landscape will be shaped and re-shaped in unprecedented ways in the next 10 to 20 years," Jones said.
Jones said a president’s challenge is leading large and complex institutions that are not very nimble and tend to move at a glacial pace, ruled by committee. But ever-accelerating workplace and societal changes require a swift and agile response. Jones is endeavoring to bring the methodology of academia and the demands of corporate America into closer alignment, and he has a sense of urgency about the task. “There is no doubt in my mind that the higher-education landscape will be shaped and re-shaped in unprecedented ways in the next 10 to 20 years,” Jones said.
Mary Ellen Jukoski, M.S.'74
President, Mitchell College
ary Ellen Jukoski, M.S.’74, president of Mitchell College in New London, Conn., concurs that rapid change is inevitable, but she believes that higher education cannot afford to abandon its bedrock principles. “As with health care, media and other industries, higher education is at a crossroads today,” she said. “But we cannot forget that we need to have an educated citizenry for the continued success of our country. Today’s college students are the future leaders of our nation, and they will require a liberal-arts foundation and the ability to communicate articulately, to think critically and to work well with others in a team oriented workplace environment.”
Jukoski added, “I don’t have all the answers about the future direction of higher education, but I have a strong belief that the residential-college experience has value and that it has a place now and will have a place in the future.” As the daughter of first-generation immigrants from Europe, Jukoski, who grew up in Massena, N.Y., near the Canadian border, understands firsthand how a college degree can open many doors. “My parents always stressed the value of higher education because they saw it as a great opportunity,” she said. “I loved it at UAlbany, and it led me to pursue a career as a leader in higher education.”
Tomás Morales, M.S.'78, Ph.D.'98
President, California State University San Bernardino
alifornia State University, San Bernardino, President Tomás Morales, M.S.’78, Ph.D.’98, whose career in higher education spans 38 years, puts it plainly: “There is no way I would be where I am today without my Ph.D. from UAlbany. The return on investment has been huge for me.” Morales, who raised three children with his wife of 41 years, Evy, worked full time as an administrator at the State University of New York at New Paltz when he began graduate school part time at UAlbany. It took him eight years to complete his Ph.D. in educational administration and policy studies. Born in Puerto Rico, Morales grew up in the South Bronx in a lower-middle-class family. His father worked in a Farberware factory, and his mother was a crossing guard; they made great sacrifices to send Morales and one of his brothers to college. His other brother chose to join the military and later served with the New York City Police Department.
At San Bernardino, situated in a financially challenged county in southern California, fewer than one adult in five has a baccalaureate degree. The college’s motto, “Transforming Lives and Communities Through Higher Education,” is more than a slogan to Morales. He is testament to the transformative effect of a college degree, and he wants to ensure that future generations of students from humble backgrounds such as his still have that opportunity to attend college.
Next year, Morales will assume the chairmanship of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “We are going to have to embrace change and control our destiny as a higher-education industry,” he said. “I am on other national organizations, and we are talking about this issue constantly. I would not say we are not yet pushing the panic button, but we are all looking at how best to serve students, how to increase student success and how to reinforce the value of a baccalaureate degree.”
Harris Pastides, B.S.'75
President, University of South Carolina
niversity of South Carolina President Harris Pastides, B.S.’75, said a college degree has never been more important. He added: “But don’t just take my word for it; ask business leaders and the innovators in our technology sector. They will tell you a bachelor’s degree is now the minimal entry point for getting a decent job. There is simply no better pathway to earning a healthy lifetime living than a college degree.” Pastides noted the current rate of 35-40 percent of Americans earning a bachelor’s degree “is not good enough,” and the U.S. is losing ground to China, India, Brazil and other countries that are robustly subsidizing and placing a premium on higher education.
Pastides said his biggest concern remains rising tuition costs resulting from cuts in government funding, and his top priority is to devise ways to hold the line on price. But he refuses to be an apologist for higher education: “The American model of public higher education is the best ever developed in the history of the planet. That’s why we pull the best and the brightest students from around the world to U.S. colleges and universities. I believe if we fiddle with that too much, we’re going to be in trouble. College is the last organized place society has for inculcating leadership.”
A high school graduate will only be able to earn 67 cents to every $1 earned by a college graduate.
Pastides grew up in a working-class family in New York City and graduated with honors from highly regarded Stuyvesant High School. He had many choices for college but chose UAlbany, where he majored in biology, “because it was a high-quality education at a very low cost.” A New York State Regents Scholarship covered nearly his entire tuition. At the University, “I made lifelong friends, and it was one of my best choices and among the most formative experiences of my life. It all started for me at Albany,” said Pastides, who went on to earn a master’s of public health and a Ph.D. in epidemiology at Yale University.
Joseph S. Brosnan, M.S.'69, Ed.D.'81
President, Delaware Valley College
oseph S. Brosnan, M.S.’69, Ed.D.’81, president of Delaware Valley College in Pennsylvania, grew up lower-middle class in Levittown, Long Island. Neither his father, a plumber, nor his mother, a secretary, had gone to college, but they were committed to ensuring that Brosnan and his brother and sister would enjoy the benefits of higher education. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Marist College, Brosnan was accepted to Columbia University for graduate school but chose UAlbany because the tuition was more affordable. He praised provost Susan Phillips, who chaired the committee that reviewed his dissertation on determinants of student success in college, noting that the University “gave me access to a great education.” Added Brosnan, who received fellowships that provided tuition waivers and stipends: “Albany really launched my career and provided me with a great network of colleagues. It opened up a door that helped me get hired in the SUNY System at Potsdam, where I worked eight years as an administrator.”
A veteran of 40 years in higher education, Brosnan said this “is one of the most critical periods I’ve experienced.” He added that the pressures and challenges of being a college president are underscored by the fact that the average tenure for a president has dropped from eight years to five in the past decade. “We used to emphasize the intrinsic value of higher education and how a well-educated person would have a better, richer life. But I make the economic argument much more often now. I’ve seen studies that show a person with a college degree is going to earn anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million more over the course of a lifetime than a person with a high-school diploma. I also quote the statistic that shows that a high-school graduate will only be able to earn 67 cents to every $1 earned by a college graduate,” said Brosnan.
But he cautioned that the irrefutable evidence of a college degree’s superior value will be moot if colleges and universities cannot rein in costs and control rising tuition rates. “Affordability is the most important issue facing higher education,” Brosnan said. “The economic model we’re working with now is broken. We have to find a more affordable model. My bottom line is that yes, higher education has value, but if college is no longer affordable for families, the question is irrelevant. That is why continued federal and state support of postsecondary education is so important.”
L. Oliver Robinson, M.S.'94, Ed.D.'96
Superintendent, Shenendehowa School District
Oliver Robinson, M.S.’94, Ed.D.’96, is superintendent of the Shenendehowa School District in Clifton Park, an Albany suburb. Eighty-five percent of the 740 students who graduated in the high school’s Class of 2013 will attend a two- or four-year college. That rate of college-bound students continues to increase, but Robinson said parents, with growing concern, are questioning higher education’s value. “The parents I talk with are still afraid their children will lose a competitive edge in the workforce if they don’t get a college degree,” Robinson observed. “But they also want to get the biggest bang for their buck. I think colleges need to add more skills-oriented classes to their liberal-arts cores. Students need to come out of college with skill sets that are marketable, and that’s a legitimate concern for parents. I am hearing a lot of concern from parents who say they’re spending a lot of money and taking on debt, and the kids are coming out college educated but grossly under-skilled for the labor force. Parents want to see their children get practical experience while they’re in college, through internships and other workplace opportunities.”
Robinson’s parents were adamant that he and his seven siblings would all have a chance to attend college, and they did. Robinson, the youngest, earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at Brown University, and his graduate degrees in educational administration and policy studies at UAlbany, he said, were a sound investment. “The practical nature of my courses at UAlbany gave me direct skills that applied in my field. The biggest benefit was that they prepared me to be a school administrator,” added Robinson.
Jones, who grew up poor on a sharecropper’s farm in Georgia, said his parents instilled the value of education at a very young age in him, his brother and sister. “My parents made sure we went to school and did well,” he said. “I remember they went to PTA meetings after working in the fields all day so they could meet with our teachers and check on our progress. My parents only went to school through the sixth or seventh grade, but they encouraged me to go on to college and graduate school. The only thing intentional in my entire career was to get a Ph.D. and to become a scientist. Everything else that has happened, from working with Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa to becoming the president of this University, has been unexpected.
“With a college education, all kinds of unintended, exciting things can happen in your life. Once you acquire the credentials, the world is an open door, and you can go anywhere.”