Studies confirm spending more on degree doesn’t mean a better result

My newspaper stylebook contains a prohibition on using a title such as “doctor” with a person’s name, aside from those with medical degrees. But I have to break that rule for Dr. Joyce A. Joyce, a professor I’ll never forget.

I remember the first day of her black literature class at the University of Maryland. She overheard some students chuckling about the echo of her name. She brusquely said her father wanted her to always carry the family’s last name even if she married.

It shut them right up.

Joyce commanded respect although, frankly, she scared me. She was intimidating. Her criticism of my papers stung. Yet, I managed to thrive under the challenge of her class. She set high academic standards and helped me reach them. Now the chairwoman of the English department at Temple University, Joyce is just one of the many professors and staff I met at Maryland who had a tremendous impact on my academic life. They encouraged and mentored me because they saw what I couldn’t believe was possible: the potential to succeed.

A new study of more than 30,000 college graduates by Gallup and Purdue University has found that it matters more what you experience while at college than the type of institution you attend.

I know it’s rude, but can I say I told you so?

I’ve spent a lot of time on this topic. And still many people aren’t receiving the message. I’m concerned that too many families are burying themselves and their kids in student-loan debt, believing that such a choice is necessary to achieve financial well-being.

Gallup and Purdue provide more than anecdotal evidence about the relationship between the college experience and college graduates’ lives. They’ve created an index that measures success among college graduates. The study found that a nurturing environment matters more than a brand name. The report says not enough colleges understand this message.

When it comes to workplace engagement and your well-being, the type of school you attend — be it public or private, small or large, selective or less selective — matters less than some of you may think.

Gallup and Purdue define workplace well-being as “deeply involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed” to your work.

“For example, if graduates recalled having a professor who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in all aspects of their well-being,” the study found.

Then there was this result. “The amount of student loans that graduates take out to pay for their undergraduate degree is related to their well-being in every element,” the report said. “The higher the loan amount, the worse the well-being.”

In its report, Gallup and Purdue posed the following questions as the bottom line in selecting a school. When deciding between an Ivy League, public university or a small private college, what should a student consider to help make the decision? When an employer is evaluating two recent graduates from different backgrounds and institutions, which educational background should distinguish one applicant over the other, and why?

“The data presented in this report suggest, however, that the answers lie in thinking about things that are more lasting than selectivity of an institution or any of the traditional measures of college,” Gallup and Purdue say. “Instead, the answers may lie in what students are doing in college and how they are experiencing it. Those elements — more than any others — have a profound relationship to a person’s life and career.”

People often write to say I shouldn’t discourage students from applying to Ivy League or other selective schools. They argue that such schools have become better at meeting the financial needs of students without loans, particularly for low- and middle-income and minority students. But they misread what I say.

I encourage students to apply to any college they want, including elite schools. However, I follow that advice up with this. When you realize you don’t have enough saved and/or you won’t receive enough financial assistance to attend an expensive university without going deeply in debt, choose a more affordable college.

It may be too late for students who have already committed to going to a pricey school and have incurred a lot of debt. But I’m hoping with this new research that rising high school seniors — and their parents — will stop stressing and overstretching themselves financially.

Michelle Singletary: michelle.singletary@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

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