12/11/2013 11:30 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

How Much Is College Worth? A Brainstorming Exercise

To the extent that college is aimed at preparing people for careers, its monetary value can be estimated by comparing a graduate's projected future earnings to the wages of a worker with a high school diploma. But most people acknowledge that the traditional undergraduate experience is designed to do something more than prepare students for jobs. What else might students gain from college, and how much should they be willing to pay for it?

With my colleagues at California Competes, I am currently engaged in an effort to develop a calculator that would help prospective students think through the possible value, everything considered, of different colleges. After plugging in tuition, opportunity costs, graduation rates, and projected earnings, we need to find a way to attach a number to the other reasons someone might value college. At first we tried asking, "If going to college didn't change your future income, how much would it be worth to go?" We found, however, that people are so distracted by the much-ballyhooed economic payoff that they need some prompting to recognize the many other potential benefits of the college experience.

In the next (still alpha) version of the calculator, we plan to ask users about the importance they attach (very, somewhat, or not important) to various activities that aren't just about the degree and the future job. Here is our initial brainstorm. What would you add or change?

  • Exploring new and different academic disciplines and topics.
  • Being exposed to leaders and experts in science, the arts, and other fields.
  • Learning to get along with others.
  • Having fun (parties, pranks, music, games, hanging out).
  • Becoming a more cultured person.
  • Finding opportunities to develop leadership skills.
  • Developing lifelong friendships and connections.
  • Preparing to make a positive difference in the world.
  • Deepening and/or testing a spiritual commitment.
  • Developing a personal identity.
  • Developing a meaningful philosophy of life.
  • Getting to know people who are different from me.
  • Finding more people who are like me.
  • Experiencing a different place or living away from home.
  • Participating in sports, clubs and/or other extracurricular activities.

Our theory is that prompting users to think about a wide array of outcomes will prepare them to consider how much they think each college is worth in dollar terms, not including the increased future earnings potential. Attaching a number to seemingly priceless items is difficult, but consumers attach a monetary value implicitly when they decide which colleges are worth paying more for. Furthermore, there can be important synergies in a well-constructed college experience. It is rare to find a person who has the self-discipline to go to lectures and participate in discussions day after day without the incentive of scheduled courses, grades, and degrees, even when the professors are spectacular. The traditional college attempts to blend academic rigor with a community of collaboration, spirited competition, support, guidance, and fun to keep students engaged in the work as well as the enjoyment of college. The co-curriculum helps connect students to the academics, but it also contributes to the development of attributes that are perhaps even more important to career and life, even if they aren't on the test.

Perhaps we are making the calculator too complicated by attempting to acknowledge the personal value of college that goes beyond job preparation. But we do a disservice to students and society by ignoring it, so it has been a useful exercise to think through how it could be done. Already we have tentatively renamed the tool a considerator designed to help students consider the value of nuanced options, rather than a calculator that implies more prescience than is possible.