10/18/2013 12:16 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Is College Worth It? The Answer Could Be in the 'Worth Claim'

Is college worth it? This is a question that gets an inordinate amount of attention in the media and among those interested in higher education.

In the 20 years I've worked in higher education, I've read hundreds of articles and listened to an equal number of opinions on this topic. The answer to the question often depends on who is trying to answer it.

Colleges spend countless hours and significant resources in an effort to prove worth. Critics of higher education seem to pull no punches in making a case against going to college. We've even seen some high-profile examples of "social experiments" with critics paying students not to attend college.

We also have seen organizations -- from the White House to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Wall Street Journal -- launch tools intended to provide students and parents with nifty online tools that calculate some kind of "return on investment" to get after this elusive question of whether or not college is worth it.

I think those who question the worth of a college degree are nuts!

It's an inarguable fact that the experience and purpose of college enrich individuals, society and our culture. Let's stop trying to prove or disprove it. Let's begin focusing on something students can benefit from. We do not serve students or society well as long as the battle is trying to prove that the industry is worth it. It is.

All of this emphasis on worth makes things confusing for students and families during an incredibly important time, when they should be focused on finding a match and a place that adds value for them. It's easy to be distracted in an effort to defend the industry as a whole, and this results in too many colleges losing focus on defining and articulating why they are worth more than another college.

Colleges need to focus on helping students and parents understand their worth claim if they are to justify the tuition they charge. The idea of a worth claim transcends popular marketing ideas like brand, distinctions and value propositions. The task for colleges is to describe why it is worth paying more for a brand, distinctions and a specific value proposition.

If we can move beyond traditional marketing, students and parents will benefit from a focus on a worth claim and can be guided by a set of questions that may help them choose the right college based on their value system and ambitions.

Worth claims should have the following qualities:
• Bold symbols and direct language
• A base built on advantages and reinforced by evidence
• Anticipatory thinking, because worth is fully comprehended through future success
• Emotion and attendance to the primary needs of deciding students

An example of an effective worth claim follows:

Worth claim: You will develop and gain the skills employers want most.
Symbols and language: Alignment between student learning outcomes and surveys of what employers want in new employees. Course descriptions in catalogs clearly and consistently listing skills developed and honed with each course offered, and providing evidence that skills are clearly developed more effectively.

Anticipatory action: College can clearly map what skills are developed, how, when and in which classes. Possession of these skills prepares graduates more effectively for a job. Recruitment messages emphasize that curriculum and learning outcomes focus on what matters most to students and to graduates.

Emotion: Skills developed during college are directly tied to what employers want -- graduates and their education are valued by others.

While the example above is aimed at colleges who may be trying to develop an effective worth claim, there also are questions for students and parents to ask to help them assess genuine and real worth as they consider colleges. These questions are:

Do I see structures and systems in place that support a college's claim about why they are worth it?
Can I list those systems and structures?
Would on-campus personnel recognize those systems and structures?

How does the claim a college is making prepare me for the future?
Will the claim benefit me directly or is it aimed at others?

What advantage does the college's worth claim give me?
What's in it for me, based on my own goals and ambitions?
Is the claim the college is making different from the claim made by other

Is the college's worth claim advantageous enough and valuable enough to me that I am willing to pay more or borrow to attend?

Students and families do not benefit from the question of whether or not college is worth it. However, they will benefit greatly by looking for a clear, compelling worth claim from each college. Instead of asking, "is college worth it?" they should ask themselves, "is this college worth it to me?"