Northwest Indiana Presidents & Chancellors
“Higher Education” Editorial Series
Mark A. Heckler, Ph.D., President, Valparaiso University
For more than a decade, the chancellors and presidents of Northwest Indiana’s higher education institutions have worked collaboratively to offer monthly editorials on topics of importance to the Region. Sharing a common commitment to building a more sustainable region for the next generation and for generations to come, these institutions work to assure Northwest Indiana has a healthy environment, a healthy economy and an unequaled quality-of-life. Each month we share our campus efforts to recruit, retain, and graduate students in our region’s colleges and universities and offer perspectives on a variety of topics worthy of consideration by our region’s citizens, leaders, and decision-makers.
The importance of a college education
There’s a narrative commonly circulated in media and political circles about the rising cost of higher education and student indebtedness. The narrative usually begins with this question: is a college education worth the investment? Folks who just read the headlines or rely on the opinion pages for their information might conclude that the value of a college degree is in decline. The facts tell a different story.
Contrary to this false narrative, a college education is more important now than ever before, for both tangible and intangible reasons. A college degree is still the surest way to increase wage potential. In addition, with the rise of artificial intelligence and the consistent call for multi-talented and flexible critical thinkers in our workplaces, college is — and will increasingly be — the best way to prepare for an uncertain future.
From a wage perspective alone, college is crucial to finding security in the often-unstable and unpredictable economy of the 21st century. According to a report on the value of college majors conducted by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, “people who earn bachelor’s degrees and work full-time can expect to earn 84 percent more than their peers with a high school diploma over their lifetime.” The Chronicle of Higher Education estimates this earnings gap to be more than $32,000 per year, resulting in a lifetime total of nearly $1.4 million. This conservative estimate assumes the wage gap will not increase, which it has done for decades. Beyond wage earnings, college graduates also receive increased employer-provided fringe benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans that result in better health and longer life expectancy.
In other words, investment in a college education yields an extremely strong return on investment, and any student (or parent) weighing the cost-benefits analysis of paying for higher education need only glance at those numbers to see that college is incredibly influential in terms of a person’s long-term financial stability and that its value is higher today than it ever has been. In addition, the Chronicle goes on to state that “graduates with bachelor’s degrees pay $563,000 more in taxes than high-school graduates who never attended college” — showing that these earnings benefit not just the individual but the greater economic environment as well.
Wage-earning potential is not the only way a college education paves the way toward a secure future. A 2018 report from Bain & Company Inc. examines how automation and artificial intelligence, among other factors, are changing the landscape of what it means to be a worker. The report predicts that “the rapid spread of automation may eliminate as many as 20 percent to 25 percent of current jobs — equivalent to 40 million displaced workers — and depress wage growth for many more workers.” However, the researchers qualify this statement with the following: “The benefits of automation will likely flow to about 20 percent of workers — primarily highly compensated, highly skilled workers — as well as to the owners of capital.” Furthermore, “the demand for workers to build the automation tools of the future is already growing, and not only in fields such as engineering and software development.” Tech companies will be calling for highly skilled employees trained in STEM-related fields, of course, but these same companies will need employees with communications, business and humanities backgrounds who can market their products, recruit potential investors and interact with clients and media. College graduates with industry-specific skills and the growth potential to weather the changes brought by artificial intelligence will contribute positively to the development, sale and use of technology as it changes the way we work.
While a college degree can certainly provide a student with specialized training in a particular field and higher income potential over a lifetime, what cannot be overlooked are the intangible skills that a college degree instills in its students. A 2016 study published in the Review of Educational Research found that “both critical thinking skills and dispositions improve substantially over a normal college experience”. A New York Federal Reserve study published in 2014 confirmed that “college instills in students ‘aptitudes, skills and other characteristics that make them different from those who do not go on to college’.”
In today’s ephemeral job market, where it is normal to have more jobs in the first three years out of college than our grandparents did during their entire lifetimes, the ability to tackle a wide array of problems, projects and proposals is priceless. Without a college degree, a person could still gain some of these skills, but a defining feature of a four-year degree is a steady stream of classes, experiential learning opportunities like internships or research and interpersonal interactions that uniquely prepare a student for a diverse working world. These are often posited as “soft” skills, yet it is these attributes gained on campus that are often what set one applicant apart from another, making a college degree an integral part of the job acquisition — and retention — process.
The world is changing at a rapid pace. While it isn’t entirely possible to know everything that will occur in the future, colleges and universities in Northwest Indiana — and across the country — are working diligently to prepare our students for what is to come. A college education is not the only path, but it is the strongest proven path toward financial stability, job retention and career malleability — and there is no way to put a price tag on that.
 Michael Lawrence Collins, “Opinion: Is college worth it? Students can learn to calculate the payoff”, The Hechinger Report, 2018.
 Philip Trostel, “Beyond the College Earnings Premium. Way Beyond.”, Chronicle of Higher education, 2017.
 Karen Harris, Austin Kimson, Andrew Schwedel, “Labor 2030: The Collision of Demographics, Automation and
Inequality”, Bain & Company, Inc., 2018.
 Christopher R. Huber and Nathan R. Kuncel, “Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis”, Review of
Educational Research, 2016.
 Katherine Peralta, “Benefits of College Still Outweigh Costs, Fed Study Says”, U.S. News and World Report, 2014.