Economic development needs higher education

Rebecca Stoltzfus
Rebecca Stoltzfus

Mennonite higher education prepares students for lifelong problem-solving in evolving economy, Goshen president argues

By Rebecca Stoltzfus

There are a lot of negative narratives about college these days, like this one:

“I’ve been telling my kids since they were old enough to know what college is that they will never, ever go there . . . Over my dead body will I see my children begin their adult lives saddled with enormous debt and facing dismal employment prospects, because that is no way to live your life. . .”

— Calah Alexander, “Why you should raise your kids to be plumbers” from the Catholic paper Aleteia, reprinted in the July 2019 edition of The Marketplace.

I feel compelled to respond because education is central to economic development. We need higher education and business to partner.

I write as the president of one of the five Mennonite colleges and universities in the United States, and from three decades of experience at Johns Hopkins University and Cornell University. Let’s begin with some evidence.

College education leads to employment and offers a strong return on investment.

College education confers a great advantage to employment in today’s economy. An April 2019 analysis of US Census data shows strong association of unemployment and underemployment to not having higher education degrees.

But is college really worth the high cost? Yes. Current estimates put the life-time wage value of a college education around $1 million. In the past 30 years, the price of US colleges has risen at twice the rate of wages.

At the same time, the pay-off for a college education has nearly kept pace with the rising costs. The return-on-investment (ROI) of college education is currently greater than 13 percent.

Higher education editor Scott Jaschik wrote about these data: “At nearly 14 percent, the return to college easily exceeds various investment benchmarks, such as the long- term return on stocks (seven per- cent) or bonds (three percent). . . Thus, while the rising cost of college has eroded the return on a bachelor’s degree to some extent, our analysis suggests that college remains a good investment, at least for most people.”

College enables people to thrive — and the key is faculty who care and mentor.

College-educated adults experience a higher level of well-being than adults who have not completed college. Gallup Inc. has devoted years of research experience to create a simple survey measure of well-being. It includes dimensions of purpose, relationships, financial satisfaction, community engagement and health. A college education strongly predicts well-being, after adjusting for other economic and social factors.

The Gallup surveys also highlight some of the distortions correctly leading to strong critiques of higher education, including admissions selectivity. They found that neither the colleges’ selectivity nor US News & World Report rankings affected the well-being of college graduates.

As people of faith, our Menno- nite-affiliated colleges offer additional “returns.” For example, Goshen College’s (GC) “Culture for Service” curriculum and ethos produce alumni who serve communities locally and globally. Based on national benchmarking surveys, 96 percent of GC seniors reported doing service as part of their coursework, compared to 71 percent of seniors at four-year private colleges nationwide. Ten percent of recent GC graduates were in volunteer or service programs, double the rate at peer institutions.

“…most high-wage jobs now require at least some college education — even in manufacturing.”

Graduates need more than specific credentials.

Despite the negative talk about college, there is unprecedented demand for post-secondary education. Most college graduates will enter careers that do not currently exist. Jeff Strohl of the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce puts it this way: “Specific education [like a coding certificate] may open the door to a first job, but general education keeps the door open to growth in that job and future jobs.”

According to the 2018 World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report, the top 10 trending skills include critical thinking and analysis, complex problem solving, leadership and social influence, and emotional intelligence. These are the kinds of capabilities that help graduates make good use of their specific skills in a highly dynamic economy.

For Goshen College and MEDA, it is particularly relevant to look at the relationship between college and the manufacturing sector. Indiana is one of two states in the United States where manufacturing remains the leading sector. And lately our economy has been booming. As of August 2019, there was no single county in Indiana with an unemployment rate higher than 4.7 percent, and the rate in Elkhart County was 3.0 percent. As early as middle school, employers are competing fiercely for workers with messages that high-wage jobs can be gained right out of high school.

When unemployment is low, it is hard for students and families to accept the time and money a college education requires. The opportunity costs are very real.

How do we make the case for college in this economy?

We must accept that for some students and families, the present wage economy is too good to pass up. College might be the right choice after one or more years of work, or in combination with work.

We must communicate that most high-wage jobs now require at least some college education — even in manufacturing. While manufacturing has historically been associated with low-education workers, there are now more college-educated workers than non-college educated workers in manufacturing fields. This trend will continue as manufacturing becomes more automated.

We must partner with regional employers to educate their employees in ways that are more flexible than our traditional full-time, four-year college pathway. In our current economy, we need to become even more flexible and learner centered.

Finally, we must communicate the liberating personal and economic value of Mennonite higher education. College will continue to be an excellent value for young adults. But also, for those with work experience who want to gain the broad and deep skills to navigate the dynamic world of work over the course of a career. Anabaptist-Mennonite higher education in the US and Canada is adapting with enthusiasm to meet the needs of our students, employers, local communities and faith communities.

Join us in promoting the value and benefits of higher education, especially Mennonite higher education.

Rebecca Stoltzfus is president of Goshen (IN) College.


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