Study measuring value of college prizes engagement over elite for long-term well-being

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a different look at the cost of kids, the ever-rising price tags for college.

How do you assess the value of one's degree and of higher education overall as a graduate moves forward? Many studies have looked at job placement and income as a key metric. But a new study measures it differently, focusing on whether a graduate has a good life in terms of well-being, satisfaction and engagement in a career.

The report comes from a survey of more than 30,000 graduates in all 50 states. It was done by Gallup in partnership with Purdue University and the Lumina Foundation.

Earlier this week, I spoke with the president of Purdue, also the former governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels.

And, for the record, the Lumina Foundation is a funder of the NewsHour.

Mitch Daniels, welcome to the NewsHour.

FORMER GOVERNOR MITCH DANIELS, President, Purdue University: Thanks for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, why did you want to undertake this kind of a study?

MITCH DANIELS: Started as us at Purdue as one university feeling we should be accountable. We wanted to know with some rigor and authority how our grads were doing, and first so that we could report that to potential future students, and secondly so maybe we could learn things that would help us become better.

Then I found the folks at Gallup with 20 or 30 years of research in this area were very interested in something broader. And that led us to today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, one to most interesting findings here is that, when you look at what's happened to graduates — and this is — the survey was across the country — it didn't matter so much whether they went to a private college or a public college or — or even how selective the school was in determining what kind of life they had afterwards.

Tell us about that.

MITCH DANIELS: Probably one of the most surprising — a lot of surprises in here, but maybe nothing surpasses that, no statistically significant difference, as you just said, between public and private, so-called elite and larger schools like ours.

It turns out that what matters overwhelmingly is not where you went to school, but how you went and how the school approached the process of your education.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what did you mean by that? How did you measure how engaged folks were when they…

MITCH DANIELS: Well, again, Gallup has decades and tens of millions of interviews. And they by now have a very good method for determining well-being in all its domains.

It's really important, Judy, to know that we were — yes, we were interested in how our graduates and our graduates — all graduates were doing materially, were they employed or were they earning a good living and all that? But, also, there's physical well-being and social and the sense of engagement with work and community.

And that's really what we have always said college should produce, people who thrive in all those areas. And it turns out that what really matters is, did at least professor show specific interest in you and give you coaching and mentoring? Did you have a work experience, an internship, some sort of experiential learning that went along with your classroom learning?

These are the kind of lessons that we hope can make our school and many others better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the implication is that a lot of people have been measuring the wrong things or thinking about the wrong things when they pick a school or think about the school they went to.

MITCH DANIELS: Yes, that sure is an implication, especially when the spread of costs across these schools, which we now know are not producing better outcomes, is so gigantic.

And at Purdue, we're a land grant school. We were put there along with our sister schools to throw open the gates of higher education beyond the elites of this country. And we have got to be serious about it, but now we know that, if we can do that affordably for students, they can have just as good an education on the other end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think the results, Mitch Daniels, of a survey like this will make other schools feel more comfortable about not having to keep raising costs and keep paying ever more for new buildings, faculty and so on?

MITCH DANIELS: I think that schools should have gotten the memo about that already.

You're hearing it in perfectly legitimate criticism, in public discourse. This year, the highest percentage, a record percentage of freshmen passed over their first-choice school for a second or third choice, almost always on the basis of cost. And so I think that many of the excesses that you just mentioned really have run their course.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what's the main message that you would want folks to take away from this and young people and their parents, who are thinking about the next several years?

MITCH DANIELS: Go to school prepared to draw on the lessons here, to search out the experiential opportunities, as well as the traditional classroom, to go to a school with some reputation for the engagement of faculty closely in the teaching, and pay close attention to cost, because, very likely, you're not buying greater quality for the higher sticker price you're being charged.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one other thing. You mentioned the survey also found that those graduates who carry a lot of student debt when they leave, that can very much affect what they do.


I think we have all sensed that student debt was a big, big problem. The survey tells us that it's an even bigger problem than we thought, that, in a linear fashion, the more debt a student leaves with, even if it's not that much by today's standards, it brings down their so-called well-being across all these dimensions, financial, social, health status, and so forth, and another very troublesome finding.

The more debt you have, the less likely you are to ever start a business. So that's bad at the individual level and bad societally and economically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University, thinking about the ways people ought to think about the school they choose to go to, thank you very much.

MITCH DANIELS: Thank you much.