WHAT OTHERS SAY: Survey will measure what students really get out of college

Friday, January 10, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Higher education is one of the more expensive investments many people will ever make.

The average cost of a year in college, including tuition, fees, room and board, now runs about $23,000 — enough to buy a new car. Graduates typically leave with $30,000 each in student loan debt.

But cost is just one thing that deserves to be considered when young people decide whether and where to go. Another is what they get for their money. That's harder to measure, and it's not something that can be reduced to a dollar figure.

A school that offers mediocre instruction or demands too little of students may leave them poorly equipped for the real world even though they have diplomas.

Most people hope a college education will help them get a good job. But universities have a broader and deeper mission than that. Reading Shakespeare is valuable even if it doesn't strengthen your resume.

Fortunately, someone has decided to try to figure out what people get out of college, in both tangible and intangible ways. The Gallup polling organization and Purdue University have unveiled a project to survey college grads to find out how they're doing.

Gallup Chairman Jim Clifton and Purdue President Mitch Daniels write in The Wall Street Journal that the survey will ask college graduates questions like: "Are you employed? How much do you earn? It will also measure those critical qualities that Gallup finds employers truly value and are predictive of work success: a person's workplace engagement and well-being."

It will also inquire about community involvement, personal relationships and physical well-being. Purdue will commission a separate survey of its own alumni to see how they are doing and how they compare with other college graduates. The first results, based on a sampling of 30,000 people, should be out in the spring.

"We owe it to potential students, we owe it to businesses who might recruit our students, to be able to say something with statistical confidence about the quality of our graduates," says Daniels, the former reform-oriented governor of Indiana.

This knowledge can only be helpful to youngsters and their parents who are making decisions of huge importance for their careers. It also promises to be a spur to schools to learn how their graduates are doing and what professors and administrators can do to improve their professional outcomes. The published data will even allow conferences to compare themselves with others.

But more than money and career are relevant. The survey is designed to tell colleges whether they are helping their students achieve the worthwhile, rewarding lives they seek.

"What Gallup is measuring is well-being, and that in the end is the purpose of a college education, especially in a democracy -- pursuit of happiness is the bottom line," Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center of Education and the Workforce, told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"If college serves these other purposes — that is, it allows you to live more fully — that is not unimportant."

New data about important matters can be highly valuable, and the Gallup-Purdue undertaking, funded with a $2 million grant from the Lumina Foundation, should provide a lot of it. Employers are bound to welcome the project. But no one stands to gain more than colleges and those who attend them.

Copyright Quincy (Ill.) Herald-Whig. Distributed by the Associated Press.

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