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Two Harvard presidents agree that Americans need to rethink how they view college

The John Harvard statue in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.
Rick Friedman | Getty Images
The John Harvard statue in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.

On July 1st, Larry Bacow, former chancellor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former president of Tufts University, will succeed his longtime friend Drew Faust to become Harvard's 29th president. In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, Bacow and Faust agree on one important issue: Americans need to reconsider how they think about college.

The biggest challenge facing higher education in the U.S. is "skepticism about the value of higher education, and skepticism about higher education's product: facts, science, knowledge, an educated citizenry that is not just narrowly trained but broadly educated," says Faust. "We have to make a case for all of those things, and a lot of our other challenges derive from the reality that I just described."

Bacow concurs: "I think as the real cost of higher education has increased, people have adopted more of a consumerist or instrumental approach to higher education. 'What does it do for me? What's the return on it in the very narrow, short-term?'"

Indeed, today there is a small but vocal group of high-profile figures arguing that higher education is overvalued and that "college is not for everyone."

While sky-high tuition costs make this theory attractive, numerous studies show that going to college is one of the surest ways to access secure employment, higher lifetime earnings and longer life expectancy. Furthermore, at highly-selective institutions like Harvard, students often pay much less than the shocking sticker price.

Former Harvard president Neil Leon Rudenstine, current Harvard president Drew Faust, and incoming Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow
Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Former Harvard president Neil Leon Rudenstine, current Harvard president Drew Faust, and incoming Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow

Still, the attitude towards college that demands a clear and immediate ROI, like a high-paying job right out of school, leads Americans to overlook and miss out on those and other long-term benefits, Bacow argues.

"There's a proposal to evaluate colleges and universities based on the incomes of their graduates after their first job," he says. But starting salary is just one of many factors to consider when making college decisions in order to get the most of your experience. Prospective students should also consider four-year graduations rates, the percentage of grads who end up working in their desired field and how much alums earn 10, 20 and 30 years after getting their degrees.

It's equally important for students to assess a given school's track record of educating students similar to themselves. Many of the schools with high-earning alumni enroll a disproportionate number of wealthy, white male students, which can make it seem like schools are singularly responsible for success when those students also benefit from systemic advantages.

Using the metric of graduate starting salaries, both presidents point out that they would have been considered failures.

"We each took a first job that paid a pittance relative to some other jobs. So I think that the current narrative about higher education in the U.S. is one that we have to work really hard to change," says Bacow. "As Drew says, people are questioning the value of a diploma. They are questioning the value of these institutions to society. They are questioning whether or not colleges and universities actually contribute to the American dream."

Fortunately, this final question — whether college is still a key part of the American dream — has a definitive answer. Faust and Bacow will be happy to know that data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Census all demonstrates that earning a bachelor's degree from an accredited nonprofit institution is consistently correlated with stable employment and, yes, high earnings.

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