With college costs and student debt rising steadily each year, a national conversation has begun to develop about evaluating the return on investment (ROI) for schools of higher education.
Additionally, websites like Payscale.com have gained publicity for their lists that rank colleges by their perceived ROI, without taking into account the immeasurable factors that contribute to the value of higher education such as experiences, skills, and opportunities.
During a time of financial instability, more and more prospective students and their families are looking for answers about exactly what they will get out of their chosen college in return for a seemingly large monetary investment. In Gustavus’ case, it is more than just a one-word answer.
“Colleges feel strongly that ratings cannot tell the whole story. A number of schools are searching for ways to measure the value of education, and some are basing it solely on two things: job placement and salary. The idea we have been discussing at Gustavus is how we can develop a system of measurement for Gustavus that talks about the value of a Gustavus education,” President Ohle said.
Within recent years, The Gustavus Adolphus College Board of Trustees Marketing and Communication Committee, in collaboration with Vice President for Marketing and Communication Tim Kennedy and the President’s cabinet, have begun to discuss how Gustavus will portray its return on investment. For Kennedy, this means changing the conversation.
“The way it’s framed on a national level, the words often used are return on investment. We are choosing to frame it as return on education (ROE), because we think it is much bigger than just money,” Kennedy said.
“The term ‘return on investment’ is the use of corporate language and business marketing language—it’s a corporate mentality, to see students as consumers. You see ‘return on investment’ and you start seeing salaries and numbers, and that’s not the whole picture,” Assistant Film Studies Professor and Committee Member Sean Cobb said.
For Brian Simons, who currently serves as the student representative on the committee, it is important for prospective students to have access to this information.
“Nothing like this has ever been done—this is pretty cutting edge. If we are able to get other schools involved, it would change the way people see liberal arts colleges in the future. In some ways, when you pay more, there’s a lot more that can be gained. It’s about happiness,” Simons said.
One of the ways in which Gustavus will attempt to inform prospective students and families on the potential ROE will be through a new part of the Gustavus website titled, ‘Return on a Gustavus Education.’ Although the website was launched this week, Kennedy and others are still in the early stages of pursuing a more complete answer to Gustavus’ return on education.
“The website will incorporate many different pages that implicitly outline a holistic Gustavus education—from showing the retention and graduation rates to supplying supplemental videos and stories for site visitors to watch,” Kennedy said.
A large part of the national conversation revolves around how to actually measure this return.
“The discussion at our Cabinet meetings has been centered on how we get the story out about the value of an education at Gustavus. How do we measure the return on education, or what is the lifelong value of a student’s education over a continuum? Every college and university cannot be judged in the same way, but we must find common ways to discuss the return on investment,” Ohle said.
Although prospective students and families are looking for an easy assessment tool, many believe that the idea of an algorithm may be too limiting. According to Kennedy, is it a delicate balance between satisfying the public and using additional resources to outline the values that cannot be factored from an algorithm.
“We are going to purpose a way that we could potentially measure return on education— and although we are not exactly sure how we are going to do that yet, there is talk of an algorithm that would be based on the 9 dimensions of the Gustavus wellbeing model. We want to give people the tools to get the information they want, so we have to try to be innovative,” Kennedy said.
According to Cobb, the ROE at Gustavus is largely based on things you can’t measure— such as the close relationships professors have with students.
“The accessibility, working together, developing writing, critical thinking and one on one class situation work better for students, and that’s the benefit of a smaller school. For me as a teacher, those are the most important returns on education,” Cobb said.
“What I have tried to focus on is trying to get varying opinions so that we can tell our story authentically and genuinely, and while it may not be what everyone believes, we have listened to a lot of voices in order to come to a consistent message. Ultimately we are trying to give people a broad range of information to show them that we do feel that for 150 years, Gustavus has been doing this—but now more than ever, we’re being asked to define it. While at the same time, being innovative in explaining it,” Kennedy said.
Long term, the goal is to invite other colleges into these discussions, and ultimately develop a model that can be used at other institutions on a national level.
“This project is aimed at allowing people to see that liberal arts is about the bigger picture–it sets you up for life after college,” Simons said.
To visit the Return on a Gustavus Education website, visit https://gustavus.edu/roe/.