Diverse Conversations: Is Higher Education Worth It?

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by Matthew Lynch

Yvonne Tocquigny

Yvonne Tocquigny

Recognizing the trends of higher education is important for those of us who are involved in it on a professional level. But what are the trends? Today, I’m speaking with Yvonne Tocquigny, who is CEO of Tocquigny, a company that specializes in brand management and development for colleges and universities.

Q: To provide some context, what are the principle reasons for the rising cost of attendance for higher education and are costs going to continue to rise in the event that no one in higher education takes steps to curb them?

A: Costs are being driven by the fact that higher education is increasingly competitive. Schools are competing for the best teachers, so the cost of acquiring top talent continues to rise. Schools are also competing for the best students. Students no longer look primarily at the educational benefits of a school in their assessment. They consider the experience the school provides them as students. If you compare the experience of attending the University of Texas at Austin, for example, in the 1980s to the experience today, you would see a drastic difference. Today, the university has all the amenities a student could ask for. The ability to offer students the lifestyle experience they want is extremely expensive. At some point, it will become too expensive to offer increasingly luxurious amenities and excellent teachers at a cost that a middle-class American can afford.

Q: Based on your experiences in higher education, do you think the value of education is still allowing a viable return on investment and, if so, or if not, why?

A: In my experience the cost of an education usually provides a viable return on investment, particularly if that investment can be made upfront and without going into major debt by acquiring student loans. Of course, some degrees provide a higher ROI than others, and students who care about this return may choose a career path that leads to a job that will provide a higher salary. It is becoming more of a luxury to follow one’s heart and pursue learning for the sake of learning. This gets to the critical point of disagreement among educators, some of whom believe that an education is valuable for its own sake in bettering the individual and culture as a whole, versus those who believe education should prepare the individual for a specific career or trade.

Q: What, if anything, is being done or being considered to start curbing the cost of college attendance and what can students and parents do to help ensure the return on investment for college attendance?

A: The first thing that students and parents can do is to be prepared for college. A high percentage of freshmen who are admitted each year don’t have the skills to succeed in college. This creates a need for remediation, which is another expense for parents and for the schools. Low student persistence is aggravated by the fact that students are not prepared to succeed. Many schools are struggling to put student remediation programs in place to address the persistence problem. This is a growing issue for many schools, students and parents.

Q: What strategies do you think might develop in the future? How do you think the cost of attendance may, in fact, be curbed?

A: Online learning and MOOCS will provide innovative ways for schools to cut costs by curbing the cost of labor (the No. 1 cost for most schools) and amortizing their investment in the best teachers. This will have to be balanced with the need to continue to convince students that the value of an online course from their school is somehow superior to that of a less-expensive institution. Many people believe that in a few years, one will be able to acquire online learning through Amazon. So schools will have to do more over time to define the value of a degree from their particular school. They will have to become more efficient at attracting the right students to their school. The students who will succeed and graduate with a degree are the best prospects. It will be better business for a school to focus on attracting the right students as opposed to as many students as possible.

We would like to thank Yvonne for sitting down with us.

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