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Opinion: Higher education ROI debate underscores larger questions

Industry Insight

Posted online

The surest path to economic and social well-being is a college education. As the College Board found in its Education Pays 2016 study, individuals with higher levels of education earn more, pay more taxes and are more likely than others to be employed.

A college degree increases the chance that adults will move up the socioeconomic ladder and reduces the chance that adults will rely on public assistance, the report concluded.

For those of us who work, teach and lead academic institutions, we know this to be true. We experience the life-changing effects education has on our students every day. Yet, in the context of national perception, a college education has a diminishing value. The popular narrative of college graduates’ being unable to find work and living in their parents’ basement is a story line that grew out of the recession of 2008-09. This narrative, fueled from a slow economic recovery, influenced the pragmatic lens rather than a philosophical lens through which many view higher education. This emphasis on pragmatism causes students, parents, industry and politicians to question if a college education is actually worth the cost.

Study after study reiterate the value of a college degree. For example, a Pew Research Center study, titled the Rising Cost of Not Going to College, shows the value of a college degree is greater than it has been in nearly 50 years, when compared to the prospect of not getting a degree. The report found that, among students ages 25 to 32, median annual earnings for full-time working college-degree holders are now $17,500 greater than for those with only high school diplomas.

This wage gap has been growing since the 1960s. Today’s high school graduates bring home about 62 percent of what their college-graduate peers earn. In 1965, the figure was nearly 81 percent.

If sound and plentiful evidence exists that a college degree not only improves economic earning potential, but also the ability to be a productive citizen, why is there so much debate about the value of a college degree? This return-on-investment debate underscores the larger question colleges and universities must answer: How should a college degree be delivered and earned?

For many years, higher education operated without much influence from students or the marketplace. The last two decades have changed higher education in profound ways. There have been significant demographic and economic shifts in the student population. The modern student population is becoming more diverse socially, politically and economically.

Many of today’s college students are over the age of 25. In university classrooms, there are increasing numbers of females, minorities, displaced professionals, students with special needs or aging parents, and students with families and jobs. These students are the new consumers in higher education. They have different needs, motivations and expectations of what constitutes a college degree.

Additionally, economic impacts such as expensive, unfunded federal and state mandates, and decreased state support for higher education – resulting in higher tuition costs for students – have forced many to question the effectiveness of higher education. However, it is not the effectiveness or value of higher education that is the question – it is the model.

We are witnessing and experiencing a shift in the way higher education is delivered, experienced and consumed. Technology is creating greater access to higher education and profoundly influencing the organizational structure of higher education.

For example, colleges and universities are becoming less residential as students are no longer required to be physically present in the classroom and faculty are no longer required to be physically present on the campus.

The traditional path to a four-year degree is becoming nontraditional. Much like the business marketplace, colleges and universities are reinventing themselves in order to adapt to not only the changing world around them, but also to changing student needs and advances in technology.

Southwest Missouri is blessed to have community colleges, private colleges and state universities – all offering innovative and flexible degree solutions to meet student needs. 

Students in southwest Missouri can find night and weekend options, collaborative partnerships among multiple colleges and universities, dual degrees, and accelerated programs designed to fit their personal educational and professional needs. These innovations in programming are increasing the numbers of students who choose to be educated at our colleges and universities.

This is an exciting time to be in higher education in southwest Missouri. The challenges of changing student demographics, the demand for innovative and flexible programming, and the influence of technology over how knowledge is created and disseminated all influence the process of education.

What does not change is the value in the purpose of education: to produce educated citizens so that they have the knowledge, tools, innovation and spirit to ensure our nation endures as a healthy democracy.

Amy DeMelo is president of Cox College, and has also served as director of Springfield Catholic Schools. She may be contacted at


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