09/15/2014 04:23 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

Return on Performance in Higher Education

Return on investment (ROI) is the latest data fetish to emerge in our ongoing quest to understand why it is we educate ourselves and our children. ROI calculates the cost of a college education and compares that cost to expected earnings by someone who has that educational credential. If a four-year private college degree in History costs $200,000, and the average history major earns $50,000 a year, it takes four years to get that investment back. If a degree in Engineering costs the same, but the engineer earns $100,000 a year, the return is faster. And if the degree costs less, say $60,000 at a public college, that too can speed up the return.

Aside from being easy mathematics with the potential to produce comparative data, ROI is not only meaningless, but misleading. If an education were a consumer good, or property, it would make sense to calculate its value this way. If I purchase a home in a market where values are rising, I have a greater return on my investment than if I buy in a depressed market. And if I pay less I can make more after the sale. That all makes sense.

With education, on the other hand, nothing is purchased. On the contrary, something beyond money is expended. Some students expend quite a bit - they take the hardest classes with the heaviest workloads, they attend colleges known for rigor, and they take coursework in areas and in subject matter that is unfamiliar. Other students expend as little as possible. They seek "gut" courses or courses of study that demand little; they stick to areas of familiarity; they are happy with any passing grade. Some students complain when professors are lax or do not challenge them; other students seek these professors out. A lot of students in college would prefer not to be there, and some who are in class aren't really there, in terms of effort. The return on recalcitrance is anything from mediocrity to truancy. On the other hand, there are a lot of hard-working students who are rightfully baffled by adults who see their success as dependent on a future paycheck.

Academics is not the sole arena of college performance. There is also campus and community involvement, study abroad, service-learning opportunities, clubs to join or establish or lead. Students who are active on campus and who make the kinds of demands on themselves that result in high grades, these are the university's high performers. And they tend to be students who go on to success of all kinds--in corporations, in communities, in families, and among those who see problems and challenges as the objects of collaborative efforts for change, and not as defects there to be assigned as blame.

Data producers would be wise to analyze Return on Performance. It's not the college degree alone that signals earning potential. It's the level of effort, the self-discipline, and the intellectual application--the student performance--that indicates whether one's college degree will pay off in the long run. Students who learn how to cheat, cut corners, and seek the easier path will find that their college degree is not worth much, no matter what they major in. Students who seek out challenges, whose minds are stretched, and who juggle schedules as demanding as those of any high-performing professional, these students find success, often on their own terms.

Return on Performance: let's be honest with students and their families when they are choosing a college. Tuition does not purchase a degree. Tuition purchases the opportunity to learn how to succeed. Tuition allows for academic and community performance, and it is performance that signals the level of investment in the student's future.