The discussion of the value of higher education has become ubiquitous–parents, pundits, and even the President have an opinion on what higher education is good for, how much it should cost, and in some cases, what exactly it should look like. But nearly all of these views are based on the end product, “higher education”, not on the values that underlie what higher education is about.
In a popular TED talk, Simon Sinek discusses how the greatest companies and most vibrant leaders are able to inspire people to action by talking not about their products or their goals, but about why they are doing what they are doing in the first place. When you start with what–a residential, liberal arts college, for example, or a rural community college–you hear things like, “Come to Local Community College! We have classes for students of all ages that serve the needs of every individual.” Not too inspiring and not particularly original. But when we can start with “Why?” instead of with “What?”, we can show parents, students, and policymakers exactly what higher education is good for. Compare my previous pitch with this one: “We believe that every student can learn, grow, and explore new ideas in ways that help them to become engaged community members and active thinkers. Every student is an individual and every student has a place at Local Community College. Come find yours.” By shifting the focus from the product (academic coursework, in this instance) to the values (learning, community engagement), we can communicate exactly how invaluable higher education actually is.
This is not to say that the economic realities of today’s system of higher education are unimportant. Prices are rising at unsustainable rates while programs that are intended to provide educational access are being debated as luxuries in a depressed economy. Pell grants now cover less than a third of the cost of a four year degree at a public university, compared to half in the 1980’s. We have to find a way to limit costs while still promoting the values that each institution holds dear. Students need the opportunity to explore what they value, what they are interested in, and what will allow them to channel their values, passions, and abilities into constructive work for themselves and for society. By simply eliminating programs that are not viewed as economically valuable, we limit the values and passions that we say are okay for students to have. Instead, we have to teach students how to market themselves, their values, and their skills to future employers.
By marketing values rather than economics, we can help students to see the importance of their own personal systems of values and likely help them to find a better fit of institution, field of study, and cocurricular interests. Even more fundamentally, however, a focus on values can help to get everyone, from faculty members and student affairs staff to administrators to be able to articulate the “Why?” of their institution, not just the “What?”. With that clarity of purpose, institutions can create change across units to improve both quality and value for students, which I believe is the ultimate goal of the discussion of the value of higher education.
Chris Venable is a first year College Student Personnel master’s student at Bowling Green State University. He holds an internship as an academic advisor for undergraduate students in the College of Health and Human Services. He did his undergraduate studies at Webster University in St. Louis, MO, earning a B.A. in Education and a B.A. in Mathematics. Chris is passionate about advising that is informed by self-authorship theory, queer issues and advocacy, intersectional social justice, and cooking for his friends, family, and coworkers. You can find him on twitter at @DropTheNegative.