A Four-year Degree: Do the $$$ make sense?

Dr. Marty Meznar thinks so and believes the world is our classroom.
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    Marty Meznar and Students in Malawi

Is it possible to assign value to a four-year education? We all have to make decisions about how to invest our limited funds. We all need food, shelter, clothing, transportation and have a host of other financial obligations. A college education is in a different category of expenses; it is discretionary. Potential students, and often their parents, must decide if the cost of college is a good investment. Will the immediate cost of the education be offset by greater success in the long run? If so, going to college becomes an economically rational choice.

However, it is not really that simple. In the United States, especially, success is normally closely associated with income. There are many studies that quantify the value of a college education based on increased earnings during a college graduate’s professional career. I believe this approach to determining the value of education is too narrow. 

At Appalachian we have excellent students equipping themselves for successful careers. Part of our responsibility as professors and mentors is to help them develop a personal definition of success that will lead not just to successful careers, but also to successful lives. Some students may decide to measure their life success as the sum of their possessions. In our competitive society that seems to be a popular choice. However they decide, students should at least be exposed to other ways of evaluating personal success. Stepping outside their culture and their comfort zone are critically important factors in helping expand students’ thinking about what is really important. 

Spending a semester at one of Appalachian’s international partner universities allows our students to develop lasting relationships and respect for others who see the world from a different perspective. Visiting the Amazon jungle allows students to witness the finiteness of a vast resource and understand the plight of communities dependent on the jungle for their survival. Visits to Europe allow students first-hand exposure to alternative models of economic policy and political debate. This exposure helps students develop a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their own points of view.

In Malawi, life expectancy is roughly 38 years. Most elementary students in this African country have class outdoors, sitting on the ground under a tree. Malawians subsist, on average, on less than $2 a day.

Perhaps, like most of us, many of our students had no idea of the living conditions in Malawi. After traveling there as part of a class, eight students initiated an effort to improve conditions in a small Malawian village called Mchezi. These students decided to measure their success in terms of helping residents in one of the poorest countries in the world. It would have been hard for them to learn that lesson sitting in a chair in a classroom in North Carolina. Can we possibly measure the economic value of the Malawi experience?