President Berkey comments on the 'value proposition' of college

President Berkey enhances a lively blog exchange at the Chronicle of Higher Education by weighing in on what constitutes value in education.

Jeff Selingo raises important points about the value/cost relationship. High-priced privates cannot significantly reduce cost without radically changing the nature of the experience. It's the value side of the ratio where the difference lies.

At WPI students work hard, collaboratively, and on project teams with an emphasis on collaboration, not competition, and a focus on important ideas and problems. They graduate with strong core knowledge in science, engineering, and technology; with excellent communication skills of all types; with a global perspective from working abroad in project teams solving hard problems of high social value; and well educated due to a broad engagement in the humanities and arts, including the performing arts. It is a culture of high achievement. Our graduates are in high demand by leading industries; many go on to fine graduate programs; and most contribute important leadership to their companies, communities, and the non-profit organizations which they serve. Our tuition increases run well below the national averages; we provide fully competitive packages of student financial assistance; and we invest substantially in the maintenance and improvement of our physical plant. Graduates' debt loads compare reasonably with the strong starting salaries available from a range of employers. Student satisfaction, which is closely monitored, is very high.

Contrast all this with a story told recently on the front page of the New York Times of a young women pursuing a master's degree in strategic communication, having graduated from a small private college and having found work only on a part-time basis at a Starbucks, but who has already amassed some $200,000 in student loan debt. One of these models is not sustainable.

Four years is a long time. There is no reason we cannot be producing well-educated graduates who are also well-prepared for jobs and careers. The higher education model is not broken, although the public sector is currently drastically underfunded, but rather needs to be better understood for what it is and is not. Those looking for low-cost education and training, and wanting to avoid significant debt, can find credible options for certain types of experience, especially in the public and for-profit private, and distance-education sectors. My own spouse began her undergraduate education as a commuting student at a two-year branch campus of a public university; transferred onto campus to complete her B.S. degree; completed an M.A. degree at a private university; and won a fellowship for her doctorate at a leading ivy-league institution where she has enjoyed a highly productive research career now for decades. That, and what I have reported about WPI, are examples of how the model can work. But they are examples of hard work and high motivation by students; productive, dedicated faculty; purposeful selections of faculty and programs; and clear-eyed examinations of value for cost at whatever type of institution one is considering for an education or for employment.

Quality education is a high-value product. We have slipped into the notion that it ought to be widely available at a deep discount, that student loan debt cannot be justified by its return in earnings and in quality of life, and that colleges and universities are relatively inefficient organizations blind to the concerns of consumers and public officials. A better-informed, more thoughtful discussion is required, and thought leaders like Jeff Selingo are making important contributions.

Dennis Berkey
President and CEO, WPI

January 17, 2012

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