Something to Talk About W&L Alumni Magazine: Winter 2014

AS OSCAR WILDE famously wrote in "The Picture of Dorian Gray," "[T]here is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

That line occurred to me earlier this year when I appeared on a panel in Washington to discuss President Barack Obama's proposal for the federal government to develop a new college ratings system. He wants to ensure that students receive value for their education, and also that the federal government's expenditures on higher education produce the desired result.

Since that proposal was made last August, anxiety has run high in the higher education community. There are legitimate reasons to worry about what such a system might mean. But we should not consider the government our adversaries in this case. The motivations behind a rating system are understandable. If there is a silver lining to the discussions, it is that higher education is being talked about. Unfortunately, the conversations are often framed in a way that defines education down, reducing it to primarily an instrumental pursuit.

More and more, the value of education is defined by how much money a degree is worth. Every day, a new study concludes this major or that, this college or that, is the ticket to higher starting salaries. Here in Virginia, the legislature has mandated that the state publish salary data for graduates of all colleges and universities, public and private. W&L actually fares well-or we would, except we are excluded because most of our recent graduates are receiving their salaries outside of Virginia. Our data can't be captured.

Concerns about college affordability and return on investment are legitimate. Students and families should have as much information as possible when making a college choice.

But I do despair over what I see as a loss of focus on the real and significant value of an education. Students are not consumers. They should see their stake in education as an investment in their future and one that pays off in how they choose to lead their lives, not just a higher-than-average starting salary.

At Washington and Lee, we believe what our mission statement says: that our graduates are "prepared for life-long learning, personal achievement, responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society." Those lofty aspirations do not lend themselves to simple measurements. The danger in any ratings system is in measuring what is easily measured rather than what is truly of value.

There's an irony here. The challenge for us in higher education is not a lack of information. It is how to help students make sense of it, to separate the wheat from the chaff, the signal from the noise. How disappointing, then, that the national conversation about the purpose of higher education has devolved into a debate over how to construct the best spreadsheet. Rather than raising our sights and forcefully arguing for a deeper meaning to education, we are defining education down by focusing on metrics that are conveniently available.

Maybe there is something worse than not being talked about.