Recently, data from the College Scorecard were used by researchers at Georgetown University to measure the financial return on investment of college attendance at 4,500 institutions in the United States. The data focus on all students, including those who never graduated. While the results show that ten years after graduation most students who attend college earn more than those who didn’t, nearly one-third of our institutions’ students earn less after ten years than those with only a high school diploma. Nevertheless, data suggest that nearly every student expects that attendance at college will result in obtaining a good job and improving their earning potential.

The reality is that the impact of a college degree on future earnings varies depending on the college and major chosen as well as the price paid to attend college. Such troubling results arise largely because of the difficulty for students in navigating the diversity of institutions and programs in the United States. At the same time, they illustrate that higher education must provide much better guidance and advising for every student as well as do a better job at communicating to the public about the true benefits of a college degree, both financial and non-financial.

Focusing on just a single measure of the value of college risks shortchanging students, by discounting the fullness of what a college education can provide. It also loses sight of some of the most important societal benefits of attending college, which include strengthening democracy by preparing students for engaged citizenship and fueling innovation and economic development at the national level. Moreover, there are many ways to assess the return on financial investment, and the returns of investing in a college degree are much more complex than future earnings alone. Recent surveys of Gen Z indicate that factors beyond financial rewards are of major importance to them. For example, 95 percent of recent college graduates considered a sense of purpose at work at least moderately important to them, yet only 40 percent said they had found a meaningful career. Furthermore, recent polling shows 67 percent of Gen Z are moderately to extremely worried about their physical and mental health, with 42 percent feeling anxious or depressed. In addition, 60 percent say most people can’t be trusted.

What we believe is essential for the next generation of college students is a broad state of well-being that extends across several dimensions of their lives. While this broader consideration of well-being surely includes a measure of financial success (such as managing one’s economic life to reduce stress and increase security), it also includes success in other areas, such as purpose (finding fulfillment in what you do each day), social life (meaningful relationships and love), community (engagement with others in the area where one lives), and physical well-being (good health and enough energy to get things done every day).

How can this be achieved? Recent research has shown that certain learning experiences in college correlate well with these broader outcomes of well-being throughout life. In particular, the data show that when students report that someone at their college cared about them as a person and they had an opportunity to apply what they learn outside the classroom, they experienced higher levels of well-being—particularly when they felt they had purposeful work. Fostering a learning environment that builds a strong sense of identity and belonging, agency, and purpose while building a growth mindset can provide the foundation for human flourishing long after college.

The pandemic has brought widespread attention to the urgent need for a broad focus on well-being. Let’s build on this realization and recommit to the fundamental purpose of higher education—to provide a learning environment at each institution that maximizes the broad success and well-being of every student.

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