A colleague recently told me that more students pursuing four year degrees are considering community colleges to earn their core credits first and then transferring to the college of their choice to pursue their major.  In theory this makes sense as pursuing higher education is a major investment of time, energy and money. However, thinking back on my primary decision criteria for the “right” college a while back (reputation and brand), this trend had me wondering if the decision criteria for choosing the right higher education path have changed. This really came down to a question of how today’s active consumers of higher education are determining the value of their investment.

Here are a few points worth sharing.

  • Enrollment Increases in Non-Traditional Programs: Turns out that non-traditional forms of education are on the rise.  Enrollment in community (2-year) colleges by traditional-age students has increased by 9% from 2006 to 2011.
  • Technology and Flexibility As Decision Criteria: Students are choosing colleges that offer them the technology and flexibility they need, leading to increases in choosing online courses and similarly, increases in enrollment in for-profit colleges.  Some students base decisions on the availability of wi-fi on campus.
  • Tuition Spikes Create Demand for Quantifying ROI: Families who cannot commit to paying for a degree up front are looking for metrics on the ROI of sending a student off to school. A recent study put the current value of a degree from a four-year institution at around $570,000 – a number which has fluctuated between $280,000 to $800,000 in the past decade. While the value is certainly nothing to scoff at today, the real issue often lies in the initial investment: tuition. Course costs have risen by 150% since 1990, forcing more students to seek out loans or other financial aid solutions which can lead to challenges down the line.
  • Qualitative Factors Play A Role: The key to determining whether or not a degree is worth it may be to look beyond the bills. Looking at how life skills play into the education equation is a good first step. Beyond that, it’s important to consider what a potential student is expecting or wanting to get out of their college degree.

In addition to these factors, there’s a healthy debate around whether or not pursuing a formal higher education degree is even worth it at all.

In an interview with the New York Times, Dale J. Stephens, founder of UnCollege, a group dedicated to encouraging individuals to seek alternatives to higher education argues that “If you want to learn, college is the last place you should go.” Stephens believes that the traditional arguments for going to college like a supportive educational environment, socializing and developing networks can all be debunked.

But according to columnist Vivek Wadhwa, “This is the reality: college is a formative place where creativity and ideas that turn into great companies thrive. It’s a giant R&D lab, a spectacular Petrie dish not just for scientists but for anyone who wants to learn more about the world and how to better navigate life after college. [If you don’t believe that, then pick a profession that doesn’t require a degree and take your chances.]”

Looking back on my question around whether the decision criteria for pursuing higher education have changed, my answer would be yes.  Today’s learners have transitioned from a passive recipient to active consumer of their education experience and they shop for the greatest value based on a set of criteria unique to them.  As educators and supporters of educational systems the most important thing we can do is to make sure we are responding to consumer demand by continuously introducing choice and flexibility when it comes to how and where they learn.

What were your top decision criteria when pursuing your higher education path?

If you had the choice all over again today, would your criteria change?

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  • Monday Skipper

    I worked in college admissions 30 years ago and found back then that prospective students were very value-minded – particularly adult students.  That approach to college selection has become even more dominant given the higher costs.

    • http://twitter.com/jkelleher Julie Kelleher

      Many thanks for sharing your perspective.  I’d be curious to learn if anyone has done any longitudinal research on criteria used for choosing a higher education path, particularly across different demographics.  

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