David Dulberg
November 2018

Can Return On Investment Be Increased for College Students?

For decades, high school seniors spent anxious months asking, “What college should I go to?” Now, they ask, “Should I go to college?” This shift is due to many factors including stagnant wages, increased cost, and unmanageable loads of student loan debt. Call it what you will—a poor return on investment, a weak value proposition—people no longer see going to college as a headlong dive into a bright future. According to a recent white paper from O’Reilly Media, policy makers need to re-envision higher education to prioritize employability and adaptability.

For private colleges, there has been, adjusting for inflation, a 34 percent cost increase over the last decade to attend college. Public college has increased only slightly less, 26 percent. This would be no problem if jobs and wages had kept up. But, right now, the US economy underemploys 44 percent of college grads. It doesn’t take a white paper to see that student loan default rates are rising. Especially for students who are from lower-income, lesser-educated populations.

Unfortunately, according to the paper’s author, Karen Hebert-Maccaro, there are other factors complicating the issue. A skill obtained today is valuable for only about five years, and nearly half of the knowledge learned as a freshman is no longer relevant by the time they graduate. Hebert-Maccaro cites World Economic Forum data that predicts a loss of more than 7.1 million current professional jobs. Additionally, more than one-third of today’s core job skills will be outdated by 2020.

So, knowledge and skills are useful for shorter periods of time. Technology is dramatically shifting job functions and roles. How can colleges deal with the increasing cost and decreasing value of higher education? Herbert-Maccaro sees this as an opportunity to transform post-secondary education by focusing on employability and adaptability.

Employability requires the following:

  • Analyze and evaluate curriculum to align with current, shifting employment trends.
  • Partner with other entities that enhance curriculum, maximizing career-ready skills.
  • Balance practice with theory, ensuring study is integrated with employment needs.
  • Seek input from employers to constantly evaluate needs and deficiencies of the existing workforce.

Herbert-Maccaro suggests these adaptability strategies:

  • Incorporate growth mindset within core curriculum.
  • Teach learning and problem-solving, in addition to subject matter.
  • Instill lifelong learning and adaptability as core competencies for all students, including alumni.
  • Build resilience by teaching recovery from failure, using “case studies, guests, and experienced faculty” to leverage mistakes into expansive thinking and growth.

Transforming higher education in a time of gridlock and reduced federal spending on social programs is daunting. Still, as Hebert-Maccaro suggests, institutions of higher education must partner with businesses and nonprofits to gain “insight, support, and resources.” Employability and adaptability should become the key responsibilities of higher education to decrease underemployment and make college, once again, an investment with a reliably strong return.


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David Dulberg

David Dulberg lives with his wife in the coastal hills above a narrow creek, mid-canopy in a redwood forest. He has been writing for non-profits for many years, and volunteers as a pilot on the Baum Squad, a tandem bike riding program for the Earle Baum Center for the Blind. He does not have a pet. This does not make him a bad person.

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