01/20/2015 07:09 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

Career U: What's a College Education For?

College for careers is a dominant theme in our conversation about higher education. In the president's plan for tuition-free community college education, he noted that "Americans need more knowledge and skills to meet the demands of a growing global economy." In the Department of Education's draft proposal for a "College Ratings Framework," it said that education "is vital to building a strong economy with a thriving middle class." Both efforts emphasize the importance of graduating, not just starting on the path of higher education, and both are aimed at reducing the student debt burden and/or ensuring that graduates can get jobs and pay off their loans. Economics, for the nation and for the individual, are front-and-center in these efforts.

Students have a similar view. In a 2012 study of the reasons students attend college, "to be able to get a better job" was ranked as the most important reason, with "to get training for a specific career" ranked third and "to be able to make more money" ranked fourth.

These are laudable national and individual goals. Education is central to economic growth, and reducing student debt, now estimated at $1.2 trillion nationally, is essential, lest we burden an entire generation with crushing financial responsibilities. But higher education ought to be about more than economics. It ought to be about not just learning to earn but learning to live a fulfilling life. That fact appears slighted in these proposals and in students' own views of why they attend college. This is, of course, not a question of "either-or." There is room to stress both economic concerns and the pursuit of a life well-lived. It is a question of balance.

The good news is that the president and students know this. The Education Department's proposal refers to the need to "open doors to a better life" and "ensuring a strong democracy." Students cite "to learn more about things that interest me" and "to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas" as the second- and fifth-ranked reasons for going to college, respectively. The not-so-good news is that serious attention to such non-economical goals is hard to find, either in the rhetoric of leaders or in how we measure the outcomes of higher education.

The community college proposal is about getting more students into and through school and reducing their debt burden. The College Ratings Framework's draft metrics focus on the costs of college, completion rates, labor market success, and student debt burden and loan repayment. Neither proposal asks what students study, what they learn, or whether they are better (as opposed to just more financially secure) people and citizens.

Part of this focus on economics may reflect the nation's emphasis on the importance of business and making money. Part of it may simply reflect the fact that economic goals are easier -- and less controversial -- to measure. How do you measure an appreciation of ideas or a more fulfilled life -- or even agree on what that means?

But the fact that establishing and applying a balanced set of measures for the outcomes of higher education is hard to craft ought not to detract us from doing so. There are places to look. The Collegiate Learning Assessment, as one example, administered a performance-based test, focused on critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communication, at 169 colleges and universities in 2013 and 2014. The results showed that 63 percent of freshmen fell below the basic level of proficiency, a figure that was reduced to 40 percent by their senior year -- improvement, clearly, but not cause for celebration.

We might also look at ways to examine other skills essential to a life well-lived -- including a career well-performed. The character not just the professional competence of students ought to be a source of concern. The ability to act ethically, for example, is clearly missing in too many of those who serve in business and government and who have lapses in their personal lives. Yet we don't seem willing to consider this capacity as an outcome worthy of addressing as a measure of student achievement.

As another example, in 2006-2007, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute conducted a survey of civic literacy among 14,000 freshmen and seniors in 50 colleges and universities. Barely 50 percent of students passed, and the gains from freshmen to senior years were either nonexistent or almost negligible. How can we ensure "a strong democracy" when graduates assume their full civic responsibilities so lacking in their understanding of American history and government?

The measures we use to judge the success of colleges, universities, and students are of primary concern. What gets measured gets attention. If we measure enrollment rates, graduation rates and loan repayment rates, we can expect, over time, to see them all go up. This is a good thing. But who our graduates become as people not just workers, as citizens not just customers, as adults of character not just competence, should also go up. If they do not, that is a loss to them -- and to all of us.