Jon McGee

Jon McGee on Value

Higher education thought leader Jon McGee argues for showing families that the best college value comes from career preparation plus transformational development.

Fueled by economic and social change, over the last 60 years or so, higher education has evolved from a luxury good to a necessity good. The rising and substantial economic return to a college degree, the labor market’s demand for more highly educated workers, and the growing number of people pursing a college education each has contributed to an ascending transactional narrative for higher education: the desire to express the value of college primarily in instrumental terms rather than in developmental terms, to the point where developmental value increasingly is simply eschewed. Today parents, pundits, and policymakers alike typically describe their expectations for higher education in overwhelmingly economic terms and judge its performance in simple terms of simple economic outcomes principally related to employment and wages.

Those expectations should hardly come as a surprise in challenging economic times. A college degree offers a degree of economic security or opportunity no longer widely available to those who neither pursue nor complete a postsecondary education. And the high and rising cost of college has added fuel to the argument. Given the price of college, what is its value and does it really extend beyond the economic return?

A friend of mine years ago described her collegiate aspiration as follows: you go to college to get a job so you can have a life. She attended a private college. Though neither a particularly inspiring aspiration nor a representation of all college students, that sentiment surely has been the mantra of many students and parents for a long time. The transactional narrative, though, opens the door to a number of uncomfortable and, for many institutions, untenable conclusions and value conflicts. It positions the economically motivated credential value of the collegiate experience as its primary and even singular objective. The act of going to college and earning a degree trumps—and is, in fact, independent of—whatever personal or intellectual development may occur during the process of earning a degree. It goes something like this. I want to be an accountant. Why do I have to take courses in history or English or philosophy? Why does it matter that I live in a residence hall on campus? What difference does it make that I get involved in campus activities? Why should I consider enrollment at a religiously affiliated college? These are not atypical or out-of-the-box questions. And they ought to press us to provide compelling responses demonstrating that our learning values are more than incidental experiential amenities or developmental accessories.

Too often today the role of college and the function of college are used as interchangeable synonyms. They are not. Function addresses what colleges and universities do (inputs in relation to some desired output). Role gets at broader purposes and values: obligations, beliefs and responsibilities.

College historically has had two critically important roles in relation to students and to society at large: transformational development (what David Coleman of the College Board describes as “soul craft”) and instrumental empowerment (the conveyance of the skills required for a successful professional life). Popular conversation notwithstanding, these are not either-or choices, but rather both. Neither can exist without the other. True instrumental empowerment—the development of professional skills—also requires transformational development—the formation of perspective and purpose. Instrumental empowerment without transformational development lacks an arc of values. The equation works in reverse. Transformational development without instrumental empowerment may be interesting but ultimately is professionally hollow. The equilibrium might be described as the balance between occupational development and vocational development (here used in the sense of calling). Soul craft and career craft need to go together.

We need to consider these larger questions and relationships as they relate to how best to prepare our students for successful lives. How do we help prospective students make choices that best suit their abilities and aspirations? How do we ensure that the experiences we deliver to them in college provide value and a foundation of values that will endure throughout the course of their careers or over their lifetime? What values beyond those defined as economic are important not only to individuals but also to communities and to the nation? These are important questions, the kinds of questions that shape and give meaning to the value narrative of higher education. We lose sight of them at our own risk and peril.


Jon McGee is vice president for planning and public affairs at College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University in Minnesota. Parts of this narrative were drawn from Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), which he authored.