By Michael Driscoll

If ever there were questions that kept parents awake at night, their teenagers nervously chomping their finger nails, and those teenagers' high school guidance counselors hitched to the phone for the better part of the school year, it's the decision about the future. Is the investment in a college education worth it, and what college is worth the investment?

The topic of the academy's return on investment is pervasive and not confined to families. Members of the education community, pundits, the working press, and politicians everywhere are in the thick of the conversation.

In recent months, the Obama administration has proposed a college ratings system that links federal student aid to graduation rates. The Association of Public Land-Grant Universities has formally responded, agreeing with the premise of a rating system but taking issue with the exact proposed reforms. Instead, the association suggests that, in the name of practicality, the nation's 7,500 post-secondary institutions be required, among other things, to provide more consumer data to families. The APLU also asserted that current information available to families does not include all the critical outcomes for college graduates, “such as learning how to learn and developing a broader understanding of the world.”

You can count on hearing in the next several election cycles debate about the rising costs associated with a college education, the dilemma presented by student loan debt, and public support of the nation's higher education institutions.

I welcome that debate, because I know what you'll find at IUP.

College Unbound

In College (Un)bound, a book by the editor at large of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Selingo examines the higher education experience, questions the return on investment, and asserts that college, as most of us know it, no longer meets the needs of today's student. The book covers tuition, programming, course delivery, amenities, and overall experience and calls into question the value students receive in relationship to the loans they take to pay for their education.

Since College (Un)bound's release, Selingo has made his way to national association conferences to speak about the book. He asserts that colleges should more frequently limit loan eligibility and encourage saving for education. He claims excessive borrowing on the part of students and parents to fund a full experience is the biggest problem facing higher education and, generally, hurts the economy.

Traveling around the U.S. for his research, he studied a variety of institutions, from high-price exclusive colleges to large public universities to trade schools. Many are slow to change, and others have found innovative ways to deliver education. I like many of the ideas Selingo's research uncovered. They affirm that IUP is headed in a good direction, holding onto certain practices we know are tried and true while implementing appropriate change for the better. Of course there always is room to do more, but our students right now have the opportunity to receive a great return on their investment, based on many of the points Selingo makes.

There and Here

Take, for example, graduation rate. Students and parents who shop for college should be concerned with graduation rate. Of course, the mainstream concept of college hems students into a four-year schedule in which they pursue one major. Many students, however, require more time for academic and career exploration. According to the College Board, most students change their major at least once; that alone suggests it is unreasonable to expect all students will graduate on a four-year timetable.

From 2008 to 2012, IUP students had a higher rate of graduating in four years than students nationally. Likewise, from 2006 to 2012, they had a higher rate of graduation on a six-year timetable than the national average.

Across the nation, particularly at elite schools, Selingo notes that more students than ever choose to double major—sometimes to hedge their bets in an uncertain job market. Doing so often can be more economically efficient, with flat-rate tuition and fees.

At IUP, we've seen a rise in the number of students who choose to double major; what makes the investment attractive is that students may choose from a wide variety of unrelated majors—variety being the key.

Scheduling classes has been an age-old problem on campuses across the country, whether it's a matter of the number of slots in each classroom or the number of open sections or the personal schedule of the student. Offering a healthy number of online classes that students can use to create a hybrid course schedule has turned out to be not only a positive but also the new normal. In the last six years at IUP, the number of students supplementing their place-based study with online classes has more than doubled. Students who take online classes do experience an element of efficiency.

I emphasize the word “supplemented,” because I continue to firmly believe that that face-to-face education provides the best possible experience for students.

Engaged research—learning by doing alongside a faculty expert who has been commissioned to solve a problem or create new knowledge—is not something online coursework can provide. Such experiences help to differentiate recent graduates in the workplace or when they're being judged by an admissions committee for graduate or professional school. While precise data is difficult to collect, IUP's assistant dean for research reports that upwards of 320 students on average annually participate in externally funded sponsored research. Hundreds more participate each year in research forums we sponsor on campus, professional association conferences, and projects funded with internal grants. As our recently developed strategic vision states, we are committed to providing these sorts of experiences to even more of our students.

As one IUP student noted, “Graduate schools asked me if I had done original research and presented it. Thanks to the Undergraduate Scholars Forum, I could say that I had.”

I can't resist sharing this paragraph from Selingo's book: “In the face of several stinging reports about the limited learning that goes on during the undergraduate years, prospective parents and students want to know if the academic experience will be rigorous enough to justify the cost and reap the rewards in the job market. Sure, the climbing walls, the new dorms, the fancy food in the dining hall, and the sports teams will continue to be sales tools employed by many colleges to reel in students. How rigorously colleges prepare students for the workforce as well as mature them for life will play a greater role in the calculation of value.”

A source of pride about which we can easily brag is the overall effectiveness of our living-learning programs. They aren't about living-large luxuries. We emphasize intentional learning experiences that take place in the same space where students spend their free time. Dozens of living-learning communities accommodate our residential students, who live with peers of like majors and benefit from enhanced programming planned around their curricula.

From 2008 to 2013, students have reported a steady increase in program effectiveness, including enhanced learning and overall satisfaction. More than half said they benefited from interactions with those who are from different backgrounds and developed better time-management, study, and problem-solving skills.

For all that, we do have good post-graduation data to show. Of members of the Class of 2012 who responded to a survey conducted by the IUP Center for Career and Professional Development, 72 percent who sought employment said they are employed in field of their choice; 66 percent were employed full-time, 19 percent part-time. Of those seeking further education, 79 percent were pursuing graduate or professional education.

My Advice to You

I urge anyone who is seeking a college education, particularly as it pertains to the traditional-age high school graduates, to begin saving for the experience. Don't over borrow for the sake of a name; seek a balance that provides a solid experience at a price you can afford. Explore all the possibilities for learning and seek opportunities you can use to carve out an experience that best suits your goals. That's how you'll find the best return on your investment for your future and for a lifetime of self-satisfaction.