Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Value of Higher Education

As the University of Rhode Island prepares to begin its spring semester, we continue to carefully evaluate the value and costs of education at URI. Nationally, the question of the value of higher education has become more prominent and persistent. It is understandable, given the substantial increases in the costs for both private and public higher education that have occurred over the past several years and the bleak economic conditions that still exist for many students and families across America. For public universities and colleges, the reason for the increase in the cost to students and their families is clear: for the past several years nearly every state in the nation has systematically reduced state support for public higher education. Given the slow pace of the economic recovery and, especially, job creation, questions about the value of higher education have become acute. The current recession is hitting recent college graduates very hard, exacerbating concerns about the value of a college education.

How should we respond? First, we must candidly acknowledge that the old truism “college is not for everyone” is accurate, and further acknowledge that pursuing “any degree at any price” is simply unwise. But we also need to remind people that, even now, college graduates fare much better in the labor markets than those without a degree and that the average income advantage enjoyed by those with a bachelor’s degree, compared to those who graduate from high school, is still very substantial. One recent (August 2011) and specific measure of this for URI graduates was provided by SmartMoney magazine (published by the Wall Street Journal), which ranked the University of Rhode Island 1st in New England and 13th nationally for value.

I believe that such statistical comparisons, as favorable as they may be, substantially underestimate the value of higher education in the rapidly changing, global economy. In many respects, our primary educational mission at the University of Rhode Island is to prepare students for careers that are only being invented now, or that do not yet exist. Research universities like URI are uniquely positioned to provide such an education because research, discovery, and experiential learning are intrinsically a part of what we do. The learning that occurs when students are asked to work on problems that have not been solved, or to analyze data or information that has not previously been examined, or to create something that hasn’t been made before, is not only essential but unique. And it is that kind of learning that not only will prepare them to thrive in an environment of innovation and rapid change, but to become innovators themselves.

At the University of Rhode Island, we are working every day to transform undergraduate and graduate education to prepare our students to thrive, and to lead, in the global economy. Judged by the success of its alumni, URI has long been a university that prepares its students to be competitive, to be innovative, and to lead. That is more important than ever. New approaches, innovative methodologies, stronger partnerships, and consistent commitment to excellence in both teaching and research are required. The faculty and staff of the University of Rhode Island are deeply engaged in all of these areas.