Why Do Students Value College?

10/20/2016 09:52 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2017

Most of the discussion on the value of a college degree is based on its economic value. The popular media emphasizes that a college graduate earns hundreds of thousands of dollars more during a lifetime than a high school graduate. And according to the U.S. Department of Labor, college graduates earn an average of 61 percent more than non-college graduates. But what about the human value of a college education, its impact on personal and intellectual development, and its value to society through civic engagement? What happened to the notion that college is about the pursuit of knowledge; and that learning is the key to understanding?

Being brought up in the classical British tradition, when I am confronted with questions like this, my first reaction is to check the musings of ancient scholars. My favorites as a boy were Shakespeare and Cicero. I still remember the phrase from The Taming of the Shrew: "O this learning, what a thing it is!" And since I had to learn Latin and Ancient Greek, I remember a classic phrase from Cicero: "A room without books is like a body without a soul."

I agree with the ancients. The reason students value college is not because it is a means to an end: a job or a big salary. It is about continuing to learn about oneself, the world and the highs and lows of life. Shakespeare is global and timeless because the strengths and frailties of his characters still resonate within us. ECampus News recently quoted a "Value of College" study by Barnes & Noble Education that concluded that "bigger paychecks and school reputation score lower with students than a meaningful college experience." This Value of College survey looked at responses from more than 3,000 current college students, their parents, and parents of graduates. It also made the point that the quality of academics definitely matters, as do student/faculty collaboration and social fit.

So what is the quality of academics? At Woodbury University, we teach our students to be creative, think critically and be entrepreneurial. There is also an underlying ethical component that is all too rare in higher education. To paraphrase Cicero again, how can one be a good citizen without studying ethics and moral philosophy? At Woodbury, we focus on personal and civic responsibility. Students develop an understanding of the importance of responsible citizenship and acquire knowledge needed to analyze conditions and create opportunities to offer solutions to real world challenges, in both human and non-human connections, on both personal and global levels.

According to a study conducted by two members of the American Counseling Association, the reason that certain students excel in college while others flounder might relate back to their motivations for attending in the first place. Doug Guiffrida and Martin Lynch, professors at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester, used the concept of Self-Determination Theory (SDT) to reveal that a student's motivation for attending college is directly related to his or her level of academic success. According to Lynch, SDT is "a theory of motivation, personality and development that proposes that intrinsic motivation, or motivation derived purely from the satisfaction inherent in the activity itself," and is more advantageous to learning than extrinsic motivation, or "motivation to achieve an external reward or to avoid a punishment."

This is heady stuff. So going back to the Value of College study and the value of critical thinking and connections: "chasing financial success is less important than preparing for a fulfilling career, gaining exposure to new ideas and developing critical thinking skills; today's students are more interested in fulfillment and connections than generations of the past." Today's students are also very conscious of cost. The survey also found that "nearly two-thirds of students said they eliminated certain schools from consideration due to cost, while only half of parents said cost was a determining factor. The study findings also indicate that less expensive schools deliver as much or more perceived value and benefits for both parents and students than more expensive schools."

So what is the bottom line? My thesis is that education is not merely about economic value but is a human value; and that critical thinking teaches you to disagree, honorably. Even as a boy I disagreed with the line in King Lear: "Sir, I am too old to learn."

David Steele-Figueredo is President of Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif.