College helps students dream of more than a salary: A Column by Drew Faust 8 p.m. EDT October 23, 2014.
College pays off. Financially, sure, but also in ways that are impossible to measure.
From the earliest days of our country, we have seen education as the foundation for democracy and citizenship, for social mobility and national prosperity. Higher education opens minds and opens doors. Yet high school students and families are increasingly questioning its value. Is investing in a college or university education still worth it?
The short answer is "yes." There is no doubt that college pays off financially. A wide range of statistics shows the economic advantage of a four-year college education. Over a lifetime, students who graduate from college can expect to make about 60% more than those who do not, well over a million dollars more than they would otherwise. Completing college makes an even greater difference to the earning power of young women. A 25-34 year-old female with a bachelor's degree can expect to make 70% more than if she had only completed her high school diploma.
College graduates also tend to lead more active lives. They vote more often, volunteer more often and are more likely to own a home. They are healthier and less likely to smoke by a margin of 17 percentage points. They and their children are less likely to be obese, and their children are more likely to go to college. Education encourages people to engage as citizens and live healthier and longer lives -- powerful reasons for earning a college degree.
But what about the benefits of college that are more difficult to measure? They are equally significant and add up to a lot of value over the course of a lifetime:
College takes students to places they've never been before. College is a passport to different places, different times, and different ways of thinking -- from learning new languages to considering the arc of human history to diving deep into the building blocks of matter. It gives students a chance to understand themselves differently, seeing how their lives are both like and unlike those who inhabited other eras and other lands. For many of us, it is the best chance we will have to follow our curiosity -- to take a course on art, or literature or to explore life in another century or another culture.
College introduces students to people they've never met before. This is true both literally and figuratively. One of the most important ways in which students learn, at colleges and universities everywhere, is by interacting with people who are different from themselves both inside and outside of the classroom. I recall one student, an evangelical Christian from Virginia, who was admitted to Harvard but wasn't sure he would fit in at a school in the Northeast. When he attended the recruiting weekend for accepted students, he found himself part of a late-night discussion with other admitted students from around the world, debating the characteristics that define a genuine hero. Not everyone agreed, but the differences were what made the conversation exciting, and he realized how much he could learn at a place full of engaging people with a wide range of viewpoints.
College teaches students the virtue of slowing down. No one denies the value of speed, connectivity and the virtual world in an economy that thrives on all three. But "thinking" is a word that is too often forgotten, trammeled in our rush to communicate faster and left behind as our brains struggle to keep up with our devices. College teaches students to slow down, to convert information to insight and knowing to understanding. It nurtures critical engagement, enlightened skepticism, and an endless desire to self-educate, preparing students for a lifetime of considering information and growing in knowledge and in wisdom.
In these ways and in so many others, college helps students see themselves differently, giving them the room and the license to imagine new possibilities. Yes, it opens opportunities reflected in earning and employment statistics. But, perhaps even more valuable, it opens minds and worlds in ways that defy measurement. I often ask students as they are approaching graduation how they are different from when they arrived at college. They say they know more. Sometimes, they say they found a passion they had never imagined -- a field, a profession to which they intend to devote their lives. But what is most important, they often tell me, is that they have a new way of approaching the world, through the power of learning, analyzing, changing to adapt to what they have come to understand. The value of higher education is embodied by people who dream bigger and achieve more, who create their own futures and shape their own destinies.
Drew Faust is the 28th president of Harvard University and the Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences.