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Susan Steffan: You can’t put a price on the value of education

There has been a lot of debate in the press and among lawmakers and candidates from both parties lately about the value of education. Some have questioned whether the return on investment is adequate for certain degree programs or majors based on lifetime earnings potential versus the cost of tuition.

I have taught college finance classes for 19 years, and spend a good deal of time teaching students to value companies, value stocks and bonds, and value investment projects. So, I guess you could say that I’m pretty good at valuing things. I would, however, have no idea how to even begin to value an education. I think my choice of wording there is very important – how do you value an education versus valuing a degree?

A degree is an accomplishment that is evidence of hard work, the successful accumulation of knowledge and skills, and success at meeting defined criteria for your subject area. A degree can help you qualify for an interview or a promotion. A degree can open doors and help you define your career aspirations and your role in society.

You receive an education when you change the way you think, the way you look at the world and the way you see yourself. Education certainly helps your professional life, but it goes so much further than that. Education changes who you are, not just what you know.

College is about learning to learn, seeing the world from different perspectives, experiencing new people and subjects, and embracing and leading change. A good college program will give you both a degree and an education.

I teach mainly adult students, who have established careers and well-formed ideas and opinions. Over the course of their studies, I still see them change and grow. Things that used to be black and white take on shades of gray. Opinions that used to be formed without solid reflection now are honed with research and critical analysis. Decisions that used to be made based on the good of the department now focus on the good of the entire organization.

I can’t say that any of that translates immediately into more dollars in a paycheck, but I can say pretty confidently that it translates into more thoughtful, informed employees and citizens. Some of my favorite students have been the ones who thought they knew everything and just needed a degree to open doors, and later realized that they had a lot to learn, and became better people because of their education.

At graduation this year, one of my adult students walked across the stage at Kleinhans, and amid the applause I heard a very young voice yell out, “that’s my mom.” Not only did her mother achieve an important life goal, but the little girl got an education in perseverance, pursuit of your dreams and hard work that day.

Students sometimes come back long after they graduate to tell me how much something they learned from me impacted their life. Those kind of moments are so much more than a calculation of return on investment. Knowing that I played a part in helping people see the world differently is what makes my job so fulfilling.

I think it is important for prospective students to think carefully about what a degree program can do for their earnings potential, and whether they can afford the debt involved in the pursuit of education. However, I think we have to be very careful about focusing the debate solely on the issue of dollars and cents. I believe learning is priceless.

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