Quantifying the Qualitative: Why the Idea of a College Return on Investment Is Misleading [Opinion]

Quantifying qualitative attributes, in the form of rankings or measures such as a "Return on Investment" (ROI), misrepresents what education is really about.

When I was in college during the sometimes hapless Carter Administration, a movie emerged that fit the times. The title? A number: "10."

In it, British comedian Dudley Moore falls impossibly in love with Bo Derek, a woman whose beauty made a dramatic impression on popular culture of the era.

Whenever someone wants to rate-by-number or rank something sublime, whether it's physical beauty or, say, education, I think of "10" and recall that such a practice was, and is, a joke. The flaw? Seeking to quantify the qualitative.

This misguided practice began more than 30 years ago with the U.S. News & World Report college rankings — a case where the “swimsuit issue” eventually eclipsed an entire periodical. The weekly news magazine died, so the annual hot newsstand seller could live, feeding parental anxiety in every corner of the country and world.

Return on Investment

Son of Rankings is stalking recent seniors as “Return on Investment,” or ROI. The notion that any number can capture something as transformative as education when it truly works is reductio ad absurdum. As one bit of evidence, see Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times column to understand what a great professor and the plays of Shakespeare can mean to a man who writes opinion pieces and has no notion of teaching literature or acting on stage or screen. Consider your own educations for the places that touched your heart. A dollar value? Really?

Yes, with continually rising higher education costs , government support for public institutions under attack, and the debt burden incurred by under-counseled and underserved students contributing to growing concern for families, one would be foolish not to have some notion of where all the time, effort, and money might lead. But the idea that it’s purely a financial transaction reflects what is wrong in an economy that puts shareholders before workers, earnings reports before the environment, and “How much are you making?” ahead of “How is your life?”

Better Measures

The students and parents I counsel are rightly concerned about finding the right college fit at the best short- and long-term price, and I do all I can to help them. That said, it just is not all about the money. Students need college communities that fit their own intensely personal priorities, abilities, affinities, and resources, taking into consideration matters of size, type, location, personality, and programs. They can use exercises such as the Fiske College Guide "Sizing Yourself Up Survey” and College Board’s “I.D. Me” personality profiler for starters, following up with Noodle’s college search to explore different schools that may fit their own desires and needs. One student’s “High ROI” nirvana can be another student’s hell. There is simply no generalizable number that properly fits so many uniquely different individuals.

So what’s a concerned student or parent to do? Read, research, visit, email, Facebook, apply, see where you get in, compare offers, sample more deeply, feel your feelings. Then decide. Use your brain throughout, but trust your gut. Yes, use your head and a calculator to get the best deal you can — perhaps through appealing and bargaining, leveraging a generous offer of money at one school for more at another — but don’t let the up-front and back-end money, the ROI, make your decision. Life is too short to let numbers do that much talking, especially when the ineffable enhancements of one’s habits of mind from a true liberal arts education are not just impossible to quantify, but essentially priceless. Sizing up new challenges and evaluating new information in order to look around the corner and down the road to create, or embrace, the next great innovation is the return such a path offers.

The Real Return on Investment

A human being is not a balance sheet. ROI diminishes the aspirations of the human spirit and is, in that sense, pernicious. Can you tell I was an English major? I took calculus and three economics courses in college and had little idea what the professors were talking about. Yet I somehow survived, make a fair living, raise and educate three children, and expect to have money to retire at some point before I slough off my mortal coil.

The return on investment that will truly last you a lifetime — until literally the moment you die — will be in the love you find and the love you share, not in how you have spent your money. Some of that love exists in learning for its own sake, regardless of how much cash it cost to gain the experience and how much more you earned as a result. As the wise title has it, “You Can’t Take It With You.”

So why, as we consider the joyful time of idealistic youth, would we adults — who are closer to the grave and should know better — have any business overstating the dismal science of economics to those we love? I have an idea: Let’s read some Shakespeare instead.

Noodle pros ad Find Noodle Tutors
Article Topics: