By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU

As part of our work at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU), we advocate for a strong investment in federal student financial aid programs that make postsecondary education accessible and affordable to all students, especially those with significant financial need and those who may be first-generation college students. We emphasize the power of a Jesuit education in developing the whole person and in preparing graduates to be leaders in pursuing a more just world (our current issue of Connections highlights some of our exceptional leaders).

Each of our colleges and universities contributes significant institutional dollars to students to make a Jesuit education possible. It is a joint financial investment (federal, state and institutional dollars) that we make in our students in hopes they will gain greatly from the academic and extracurricular opportunities available to them at our institutions.

The underlying assumption in our advocacy and investment is that a postsecondary degree, especially one from a Jesuit college or university, is a good thing. It is an endeavor that contributes to the common good as well as something that accrues benefit to both society and the individual. But what do we do when we encounter a federal lawmaker who questions this assumption and challenges us to explain why a college degree is valuable?

As we advocate for access, we must be prepared to respond to this fundamental question: Does a college degree really matter? Does it contribute to the common good?

The Answer Is “Yes”

At AJCU, we are confident that the answer is “Yes.” Our response is “Yes,” and there are many reasons why we answer with confidence. There are many ways to assess the value of college, and by all measures a college degree is good—for both the individual and for the nation.

What do we know from data about the “value” of a college degree? There is a lot of research available that looks at earnings over time of individuals with a college degree.

In general, an individual who completes college will realize higher earnings over their lifetime. According to a report from the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), over a 40-year career (of the 1.1 million graduates of private nonprofit colleges and universities), a degree at a private, nonprofit college or university is expected to generate an additional $2.1 trillion (in economic impact), support and sustain 11.4 million jobs, and create $258 billion in local, state and federal taxes when compared to students not attending college. That same report from NAICU cites the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, noting the mean salary earned by a person with a bachelor’s degree is 67.3 percent higher than someone with only a high school diploma.

We also know that a college degree is a pathway to secure employment. During the Great Recession, and more recently during the pandemic, individuals with a college degree were able to maintain or gain employment at higher rates. According to a report from the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU), in 2010, the unemployment rate for all young workers was 15.8 percent, but for those with a college degree, it was much less: 6.9 percent.

Additional data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reveals that the current unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders is 2.5 percent (January 2022) (and 2.0 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree and higher), and 7.6 percent for those with a high school degree.

More Than Money

Higher earnings and lower unemployment are important considerations. What about preparation for the workforce and job satisfaction?

According to the Pew Research Center, “overall, about eight in ten adults say their education was very or somewhat useful in preparing them for a career.” The Pew report notes that even with challenges that come with paying for college, “83% of bachelor’s degree holders believe they have already seen a return on what they and their family paid for their bachelor’s degree,” and “only 6% of graduates say colleges did not pay off for them and they do not expect it in the future.”

While these measures show the positive impact of a college degree for an individual and for our national economy, we know it is not true for all students in all programs. For example, Georgetown University’s Center for Workforce and Education’s recent news release about their online Return on Investment tool noted that in some cases at some institutions, ten years after enrollment in college, some individuals earn less than their high school graduate colleagues, and this may be related to “low college graduation rates and disparities in earnings by gender and by race and ethnicity.” As we advocate for greater access and increased affordability, we must demonstrate that our institutions are laser focused on completion for all students and support their success beyond graduation as well.

While important, earnings are not the only measure of value of a college degree (especially given how undervalued/underpaid certain careers are in our economy—like police, firefighters, schoolteachers and social workers, to name a few). We can also consider other measures of value that emerge for college grads, including increased levels of civic engagement, increased volunteerism and higher levels of wellness. Graduates found college useful in job preparation and reported higher levels of job satisfaction compared with those with a high school degree.

What else? According to a Lumina Foundation report, college degree holders have higher participation in school, community, service, civic and religious organizations, as well as greater leadership responsibility within those groups. Government expenditures on this population are lower and community involvement is greater, as is trust and neighborhood interaction. Some of these measures are foundational to our democratic values and our health as a community of people.

Graduation Plus Personal, Spiritual Growth: #JesuitEducated

These measures are just some of the ones we can point to in demonstrating the value of a college education. Completion plays the most significant role in any measure of success. As a nation, we must do more to help ensure that once a student enrolls in postsecondary study, they are adequately supported in their academic pursuits and that they graduate.

The AJCU institutions make graduation a priority for each student at a Jesuit college and university. We want them to value what they pursued at our institutions—their degree and their preparation for a sustainable and fulfilling career. And we want them to value that which is harder to measure but equally important—their personal and spiritual growth, and their preparation to meet the challenges in the world with intellect, imagination, faith and reason. That they are proud to be #JesuitEducated.