November 15, 2013

243rd place...but “curious, analytical, and engaged”

While by some metrics UChicago does not give students the best bang for their buck, “life of the mind” still holds value.

In those anxious weeks before my move to Hyde Park, I found a bit of affirmation in U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings. UChicago had once again cinched a place among America’s top universities, tying with Stanford for fifth on the venerable list. With that flattering status, it’s no wonder that, in her Viewpoints column on November 1, Jane Huang concluded that “the rankings to which we object the most tend to be the ones that deviate most from U.S. News’s.”  If you agree, brace yourself: On another recent ranking, UChicago placed not fifth, not 10th, but 243rd among U.S. colleges. That list, not U.S. News’s, speaks volumes about UChicago’s place in the changing world of higher education.

This unsettling ranking, compiled by financial website PayScale, assessed colleges’ “return on investment”—median pay, tuition, and earnings over 30 years. As higher education becomes increasingly expensive, this dollars-and-cents view of college is gaining traction. On October 29, The New York Times reported that Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, and U.S. News itself have begun publishing value-based college rankings. Small wonder: After years of horror stories about recent college graduates working at Starbucks and living in their childhood bedrooms, recession-battered families would naturally seek their money’s worth for four costly years of college education. In a nod to these sensibilities, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced plans for a federal college-ranking system, explaining, “We’ll be looking at affordability…and we’ll be looking at outcomes, such as graduation and transfer rates, alumni satisfaction surveys, graduate earnings, and the advanced degrees of college graduates.”

The vast discrepancies in these value-based rankings should raise eyebrows—Chicago scored 243rd on Payscale’s, 46th on Washington Monthly’s, and 14th on Forbes’s—but the fact that they all knock our college off its top-five pedestal presents troubling questions to UChicago undergrads. Is there any legitimate reason to spend $240,000 on an education that will yield lower earnings than many state schools? How valuable are a deeper appreciation of The Iliad and close proximity to dozens of Nobel laureates in today’s job market? With the mantra “That’s all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?”, can UChicago and its storied liberal arts tradition adapt to a bleak employment picture for today’s college students?

It’s certainly trying. Marthe Golden, director of student and employer services at Career Advancement (CA), points out, “There has been significant growth [in CA] over the past 10 to 15 years—this is due to Dean Boyer’s vision and strategy for the College.” That strategy has already brought about a twofold increase in CA staff, University-funded Metcalf internships, and a career adviser for each incoming first-year. Golden also mentioned newer programs—“UChicago Careers In…” programs, Institute of Politics internships, and networking opportunities—to ensure that Chicago students “receive the absolute best professional advising and training through Career Advancement.”

A worthy goal, but reaching it will prove difficult for CA. The University currently funds about 1,000 Metcalf internships per year, mostly targeted at second- and third-years who have begun exploring career interests, but aren’t yet seeking full-time employment. With roughly 1,500 students in each class, this program will reach only about one-third of its target audience, leaving the other two-thirds to find internships elsewhere.

Granted, CA offers other programs, and students who do not get Metcalf internships will undoubtedly manage to find some form of hands-on experience. However, even working an internship—with or without the Metcalf program—may not translate into a quick payoff; starting salary upon graduation figures prominently in value-based rankings. Stanford, the school that meets the same academic benchmarks as UChicago in U.S. News’s traditional rankings, placed 10th on Payscale’s list and first on Forbes’s. A possible reason: Stanford churns out legions of STEM grads headed for jobs in nearby Silicon Valley and average starting salaries of $61,300, well above $45,600 for a recent Chicago graduate. Even schools not thought of as academic powerhouses—Northeastern University, for instance—are enabling their students to earn more faster. The average Northeastern alum can expect a starting salary of $52,700, after paying $28,000 less in tuition than her counterpart in Hyde Park.

And yet I declined Northeastern’s offer of admission and committed to Chicago, with its lower starting salary and return on investment that’s apparently worse than that of 242 other colleges. My rationale? “People want so many different outcomes from their college experiences,” mused one of my classmates, first-year Char Daston. “And everyone prioritizes those goals differently.” While a growing number of students are—understandably—prioritizing a lucrative career, some still value even more the ability to think critically and write convincingly. Char elaborated that these “people who prioritize learning about ideas would probably rather go someplace like UChicago.” The “life of the mind” has served people like that well for generations, just as it serves Char and me now.

Not just intellectually: In 1974, a first-year arrived in Hyde Park and began pursuing the same liberal arts curriculum that’s drawn skeptical glances from recent college rankings.  Today, that Chicago student has a net worth of $2.1 billion, control of a top investment firm, and his name on the state-of-the-art library in which I’m now writing this article. “I love to hire University of Chicago graduates because they’re bright, intellectually curious, analytical, and engaged,” explains Joe Mansueto (A.B. '78, M.B.A. '80), founder and CEO of Morningstar. “My University of Chicago education has helped me throughout my career, and I’m delighted to support young students in building their careers.”

Good luck squeezing that sentiment into a college ranking.

Patrick Reilly is a first-year in the College.