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Looking Beyond Money in Evaluating a College

Last week when President Obama introduced the idea of a college-rating system, his focus was on the economics of higher education.

But there is more to measuring the worth of an education than the financial payoff, argues Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, part of the global research and polling organization.

"It's not always how much money you make, it's about liking what you do everyday," he said in a recent interview.

The administration proposes giving families information about a school's affordability and earnings of graduates to help them uncover those colleges that provide the best value.

In addition to weighing the financial return, Busteed contended that it's important to look at how satisfied people are with their lives once they have a degree.

Ask parents what they want their children to get from their education and most would say a good-paying job, as well as happiness, so measure both, suggested Busteed.

For years, Gallup has perfected its measure of "well-being," said Busteed, dividing the concept into five categories of career, social, financial, physical, and community well-being. Of those essential elements, career well-being has been shown to be the most important predictor of overall well-being. It is determined by having people respond to statements such as: I like what I do each day; There is someone at work who encourages my development; or, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

Gallup surveys find a good job trumps everything because when someone is engaged at work it often leads to satisfaction in other areas.

"Our research reinforces the fact that the ultimate outcome of an education is fundamentally about well-being," wrote Busteed in an article in the latest issue of Trusteeship Magazine. "People often view well-being as happiness or wealth, but it is much more than that, and it is closely tied to education."

A well-being measure could easily be part of a system that also evaluates classic economic measures, said Busteed. "You need a mixture of both if you want a great scorecard," he said.

This could encourage colleges to work closely with students to help them find the right career fit, he added. If a college graduate works as an investment banker and makes $100,000, it may sound like a win on a traditional financial measure. But if the employee is miserable, that's not really a successful outcome of that degree, said Busteed.

Busteed cautioned that all this data Gallup is collecting only matter if teachers and colleges are interested and able to move the needle on these measures. This may mean providing counseling and other services to ensure that a student's higher education experience is meaningful and leads to engagement in the workplace and in the community.

Incorporating experimental and project-based learning, internships, or mentorships into a degree program can aid in this process, wrote Busteed. This can help students understand how to identify a good manager and an engaging workplace, leading them to greater career happiness.

To truly capture graduates' life satisfaction, surveys may need to be done a couple of years after college, and periodically every few years, because the older people get the happier they often are in life, said Busteed.

Some individual institutions have hired Gallup to conduct well-being polls of their alumni to measure the lifelong effect of a particular college degree on graduates.

Gallup is also embarking on a new national project evaluating the well-being of college graduates that will shed some light on which states are producing graduates that are most satisfied with their lives, and from what types of institutions (four-year public vs. private, for instance).

Busteed concluded in his article: "Shortsighted and insufficient measures currently shape the higher education agenda...until colleges and universities value what they measure and measure what they value, Americans will continue to ask, 'Is college worth it?' And leaders in higher education may not like the answer."

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