The Value of a Degree

December 18th, 2013 / By

Are college graduates better off than non-graduates? If so, does value vary by the type of institution attended? How much value does a JD add to a BA? Does that value vary by institution?

Both critics and defenders of higher education have struggled with these questions. Most have recognized that we can’t measure a degree’s value solely by financial reward. We hope that higher education also improves health, autonomy, personal relationships, emotional well-being, community engagement, and other goods. But how can we measure all of those outcomes?

Now there’s an app for that.

The Gallup-Purdue Index

The Gallup Organization and Purdue University have just announced creation of the “Gallup-Purdue Index.” This index will attempt to measure both career and well-being outcomes for college graduates.

Gallup has decades of experience asking people about their financial status and well-being. The company plans to draw upon that knowledge to devise questions for the new index. Participants will answer questions about their jobs, income, educational debt, other debt, and financial management. They will also provide information on their workplace and community engagement, personal relationships, physical fitness, sense of purpose, happiness, and stress.

Gallup will start conducting its surveys in the new year, with the first results available in spring 2014. The polling company plans to survey 30,000 college graduates a year for at least five years, generating a database with responses from 150,000 individuals.

Benchmarks, Not Rankings

Notably, Gallup does not plan to release data about individual colleges or universities. Instead, it will aggregate data by category. The results, for example, could report how individuals of different races fare after graduation, how graduates of research universities compare to those of liberal arts colleges, or how outcomes vary by region of the country. These data, Gallup suggests, will create benchmarks that institutions can use to gauge their own graduates’ outcomes.

The results, however, undoubtedly will do their part to fuel competition among universities. Gallup, for example, has proposed releasing results by athletic conference. Do Big 10 graduates earn more than Pac-12 ones? Are they more happily married? If fans don’t like the BCS system, they can embrace Gallup-informed “well being” competitions among the conferences.

Although Gallup will not announce institution-specific results, colleges and universities can contract with the company for surveys of their own graduates. Each institution could then compare its results to the national benchmarks. Purdue has already asked Gallup to survey its graduates; other colleges may do the same.

What Will We Learn?

Like all social science research, the Gallup-Purdue Index will have significant limits. If Pac-12 graduates are happier than Big 10 ones, is that because of their college experiences or because they live in sunnier states? If Ivy League graduates earn more money than graduates of land-grant universities, is that because their college education was superior, their native talents were greater, their pre-college advantages were deeper, or their employers favored the Ivy League for outdated reputational reasons?

Even if we disentangle these strands and identify the colleges that produce the happiest, most successful graduates, how will we know which part of the educational experience paid off? Was it class size, particular majors, the campus environment, the football team’s success? In the social world, measurement often generates new questions rather than solid answers.

There’s also a dark side to surveys like the Gallup-Purdue Index. Users can interpret results to support their pre-existing notions: If my college fares well, I’ll tie the results to my pedagogy. If my graduates stumble, I’ll blame the weather.

There’s a danger, furthermore, that policymakers will seize upon data to construct superficial answers to complex questions. It’s unlikely that one, or even three, college attributes explain graduate well-being. Understanding the relationship between higher education and adult satisfaction will require considerable exploration. As the data generate new questions, we’ll have to commit to asking those questions–not simply settling for first-generation answers.

Indices, finally, seem to breed competition. Administrators, educators, students, and alumni will await the annual index as eagerly (and anxiously) as they anticipate the US News releases. In my worst nightmare, Gallup will update survey results weekly–just like the football rankings. We already spend far too much time on rankings and competition in higher education.

The Up Side

On the other hand, the Gallup-Purdue Index could teach us a lot about higher education. We spend a lot of time speculating about the benefits of higher education; more data could begin generating answers. Used responsibly, high-quality data could help us address essential issues: What type of education gives low-income students the best boost? How do liberal arts majors compare to STEM specialists? Are there educational innovations that will advance the progress of women and minorities in the professions?

Measurements also facilitate accountability. Now that a degree can cost more than a starter house, and now that we have the capacity to gather substantial data about outcomes, we should hold educational institutions accountable. If we can improve results for our graduates–in any facet of their lives–we should work towards that end.

What About Law Schools?

So far, the Gallup-Purdue Index will focus on college graduates. It seems, though, that law schools could get in on the act. Individual schools could commission surveys to determine whether their graduates obtain value from earning a JD. Are those law school graduates happier than college grads with no further education? Richer? More stressed? More or less involved in the community?

To make those comparisons, each law school could choose college benchmarks that match their feeder schools. Maybe a particular law school’s grads are happier and more successful than the graduates of research universities in the region, but not better off than the grads of local liberal arts colleges.

Equally intriguing, the ABA, NALP, or another national group could commission Gallup to conduct a survey of law school graduates nationally. How do those graduates compare to college grads without further education? Do the results depend on the type of law school, type of post-law job, or region of the country?

As legal educators, we pride ourselves on the fact that our degrees last a lifetime. Now that we have the tools to explore the extent of that impact, we should seek that knowledge.

  • Unemployed_Northeastern

    Careful, DJM. The funding for this study comes from an actor with financial motivations in higher education – the Lumina Foundation (take a look at who founded and funded them, and then look at their mission statement and see how it would benefit those founders and funders).

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