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A New Gallup Survey Will Measure the Value of a Degree, Beyond Salary

As nearly everyone in higher education knows by now, Americans have been paying closer attention to the return on an investment in a college degree. The problem has been how to measure that return. The most reductive measurements—say, a person’s salary or employment status, sometimes only months after graduation—have seemed to some incomplete, inaccurate, or perhaps even vulgar. But to merely argue that college prepares a person for “lifelong learning” or a fulfilling life seems too vague. Most of us also have mortgages, car payments, and student-loan debts to cover.

So a new initiative from Gallup and Purdue University, being announced on Tuesday, is intriguing in that it strives to go deeper, especially on the intangibles. In fact, in the conversation about the value of college, the results could be revolutionary.

Beginning this coming spring, and continuing over the next five years, the polling agency, with help from researchers at the Indiana institution and support from the Lumina Foundation, will survey adult college graduates—30,000 at a time, with more than 150,000 respondents at the end of the study—to find out how the graduates perceive the effect of college on their careers and quality of life.

In that sense, the  Gallup-Purdue Index, as it’s called, has the potential to go beyond other studies that measure college’s value with a blunt instrument like salary figures.

“One of George Gallup’s first research obsessions was trying to quantify a life well lived,” says Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education. Gallup’s extensive research in well-being will be used to assess the respondents not only in terms of career and finances, but also in terms of relationships, physical health, and engagement with community.

The sample of respondents will proportionately match the graduation patterns in the general population. For example, if enrollment at four-year public colleges is 60 percent of students at all four-year colleges, 60 percent of the respondents will have graduated from four-year public institutions.

Gallup will then cut up the data to, for example, find out how graduates of public colleges fared against those of private or for-profit colleges, or how blacks perceive their careers and lives versus whites or Hispanics, or how results from one region of the country measure up to another. Gallup might be able compare the Big Ten, Pac-12, and Southeastern Conferences in terms of student outcomes—bringing a new level of competition to those colleges.

Purdue will measure its alumni along some of the same metrics, then compare them to the benchmarks developed through Gallup’s survey. (Gallup hopes to recruit other colleges to engage in similar research.)

Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., Purdue’s president, says that he went to Gallup earlier this year to learn about how the company might measure outcomes at the research university. “I thought that we should and would have to produce some more authoritative evidence of the value that our students had obtained through Purdue,” he says. While there, he learned about the polling company’s interest in surveying graduates, and “the idea evolved from there.”

“I was immediately drawn to the fact that they will measure what I would consider the fundamentals”—whether a graduate found employment and decent pay—”but also that they know so much more about what produces a well-rounded and fulfilled life,” he says.

“Gallup is sitting on 25 million interviews from the past that tells them an awful lot about what makes the most productive, engaged, fulfilled adults and workers,” Mr. Daniels says. “Now to be able to marry that with new data that they will be gathering about college graduates specifically by category and type of school, we should all learn a heck of a lot.” Measuring outcomes may make some in higher education nervous, he notes. “A lot of people would rather not be measured and held accountable.”

Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, of which Purdue is a member, issued a statement of guarded support for the project. “The Gallup-Purdue Index is an ambitious and challenging undertaking whose goals may be difficult to accomplish,” his statement says. “But it contains strong elements that make it superior to many other existing and proposed outcome measures.” First among the index’s strengths, “it recognizes the complexity and range of benefits that attaining a college degree confers on an individual, avoiding the myopic notion that financial outcomes like earnings constitute the primary value of a degree.”

Notably, Anthony P. Carnevale—who has made a career of connecting wages to majors as director of the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce—finds the project compelling. Earnings and employment might be key measures in determining the value of a college degree, he says, but those metrics are merely “a proxy for well-being.” Income determines happiness only up to a point.

“The noneconomic value of college needs to be funded,” Mr. Carnevale says, “and the dangerous trend—and it is very much the trend, and I am part of it—is that we are trying to increase efficiencies in college access and graduation, and we are driving it by economic outcomes. The standard industrial model of higher education—that is far from the whole story in a culture where individual fulfillment is as important as it is in this one.”

“What Gallup is measuring is well-being, and that in the end is the purpose of a college education, especially in a democracy—pursuit of happiness is the bottom line,” he says. “If college serves these other purposes—that is, it allows you to live more fully—that is not unimportant.”

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