10/23/2013 08:38 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2013

Does a College Degree Make Dollars and Sense?

Over the past few months, we've heard much about President Obama's plan to make higher education more affordable and about the creation of a performance rating system for colleges and universities. This has caused debate both inside and outside of higher education at a time when many people are asking a simple question: Is a college degree worth it?

In light of soaring educational costs and the $1 trillion in student loan debt in this country, the question is valid. I am sure it is being asked by both parents and students as high school graduates don their caps and gowns and make decisions about their future.

According to a recent Nielsen Newswire report, the answer is a resounding "yes." The article, "Education is an Investment for the Future Around the Globe" stresses that the road to better jobs, more money and improved lifestyles is paved by education. The Nielsen survey, which included 29,000 respondents from 58 countries, revealed that 78 percent of them agreed that receiving higher education is important for a better life. In addition, approximately 75 percent of respondents said college education leads to better employment and 72 percent concluded that a college degree equals a higher income both immediately after graduation and over a lifetime.

Nationally, however, the answer is a bit fuzzier. The Wall Street Journal boldly discussed the Diploma's Vanishing Value, and conservative political theorist Bill Bennett recently stated in a U.S. News and World Report article that much has changed over the past five years in terms of students heading directly to college after high school without passing go. Bennett noted that "oddly, a lot more of the public has questions about whether it's worthwhile to go (to college). In 2008, 81 percent of adults thought college was a worthwhile investment. This year, 57 percent think so."

Other headline-grabbing stories like this one may reflect a fashionable position to take at the moment. But does it really reflect a national mood?

Dylan Matthews in the Washington Post argues that education is worth it and that there should be no debate about it. In addition to the many facts he cites, including that people with college educations earn more over their lifetimes than people without them, he ends by quoting a report that states a college graduate's life satisfaction is higher. In addition, a recent article in CNN Money cites a study that at the ripe age of 22, the average college grad earns about 70 percent more than the average person with just a high school diploma.

The Gallup Business Journal goes a step further, focusing on happiness and contentment in relation to a person's career achievement. In its own surveys, Gallup has determined that career well-being is the most important predictor of a person's overall well-being. In fact, in every country Gallup has surveyed, people said a good job trumps everything and that it's not about salary but about liking what you do. The article suggests that it's important for educational institutions to measure long-term value among its former students in regards to career well-being. The data then can be used in a variety of ways, such as incorporating experiential and project-based learning, internships or mentorships into a degree program.

Based on my own experience of 33 years as a college president, I believe contentment is an important word to consider regarding higher education. Where is the value of any type of college degree if a person then enters a career that offers no sense of worth or satisfaction? It is of course a college's duty to produce graduates who are trained and work-ready when they cross the stage with their diplomas in hand. However, when considering how we make higher education "worth it," perhaps we should stop periodically to remind ourselves that students are not simply numbers or completions. They are unique men and women who are with us at one of the most malleable stages of their lives. We have an opportunity to guide them into careers that offer satisfaction beyond more immediate financial benefits.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.