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Just how valuable can a college education be?


The increasing costs of higher education – along with the drop in its perceived overall value to society – have been eroding trust in academic institutions. But is there any merit to this increasingly popular perception? If so, what are some of the reasons why, and what can educators do about it?

Dr. David Hubert is a professor of Political Science and serves as Associate Provost of Learning Advancement at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), and he joined us to talk about practical strategies for improving student engagement to help promote an integrated learning environment, including how these efforts increase the value of college education for students beyond their academic careers.

The Real Value of College Education

It’s true that there is a growing number of people who opine that “college is a waste of time”. While the cost of higher education has been rising over the past few years, David points out that overall increases in prosperity – especially evident during the 70s and 80s – have strong links to the increased accessibility of higher education.

In fact, the benefits that higher education grants extend far beyond providing the qualifications for an individual to become equipped to have a rewarding career in fields such as computer science, engineering, or medicine. Just imagine the positive impact that the work of such professionals provides for the world at large, and what the world would be without them — there is a tremendous public benefit to be had!

There is, of course, the reality of politics and bureaucracy, and these can have significant effects on how accessible and effective higher education can be for many. As not everyone can appreciate all the significant but intangible public benefits that a college credential can provide, some can develop an uncertainty as to how that can be worthwhile in relation to how much it costs. And if enough of the public hold such a view, this can have knock-on political effects, such as budget cuts, meaning publicly funded institutions will need to find ways to continue operating on less, which might include passing on more of the expense to students.

That doesn’t mean that college is no longer worth it; higher education still provides tremendous value both to the individual and to society, but the increased cost means it becomes less accessible to more people overall.

That said, many academic professionals are determined to find ways to ease the burden on students when it comes to extracting value from their time in higher education, both through pedagogical means and more practical initiatives.

How To Improve Student Engagement


How engaged students are can be an indicator of how much they can benefit from the program that they’re undertaking — the more students are engaged, the more benefits they derive and the more value they can gain from their education, and this goes beyond just their time in academia.

David says that student engagement starts with the teacher, and he applies this principle by modeling the very practices that he teaches his students to do. If he asks his students to use certain methods when conducting research and moving on to the writing phase of projects (which includes outlining, drafting, editing, etc.), he not only tells them how but also shows them by both providing a sample project that he’s working on at that moment, as well as being an example for them.

This approach helps educators develop deeper insight into the challenges that students face throughout the work that they must do, and this, in turn, allows teachers to become more effective educators because of the empathy, trust, and understanding that they build with their students.

Another key method in helping students become deeply engaged is to help them pull together and examine the work they have been doing across multiple disciplines and subjects and to lay out the practical applications and effects they can see these having in their respective contexts, along with how they might relate to each other.

In parallel, students are asked to reflect on their thought processes as they go, using questions such as: 

  • “What assumptions – if any – did you have before starting?” 
  • “How have your experiences challenged these assumptions?” 
  • “What have you learned having gone through these experiences?” 

The students then place the results of their work in their respective ePortfolios, which allow them to better organize, present, and continuously refine this rich information. This allows them to not just extract more benefits from what they’ve gleaned from these experiences, but to continuously do so even after such projects have been completed — something that more traditional textbook-based learning simply cannot facilitate. (Get the full gist about Salt Lake City College’s ePortfolio initiative.)

This type of authentic learning is another way of extracting even more value out of one's college education that extends beyond their academic career because they're developing critical thinking and metacognitive skills that they can apply in their professional career, as well as in every aspect of their everyday life.

Open Education Resources — How Everyone Benefits

OER – Open Educational Resources – is a broad academic initiative that attempts to lower costs and improve access for students by making educational resources like textbooks openly licensed. This means that they can access these for free or at a very low cost, and they can share and even modify these at will. 

Beyond cost savings, another benefit that OER provides academics is the ability for rapid development of better reference materials, which helps mitigate the consequences of textbooks that are not only expensive but so poorly developed that they bore students out of being engaged in their own educational experiences and deprive them of the benefits of deeper learning!

Dr. Hubert’s own textbook, Attenuated Democracy — A Critical Introduction to U.S. Government and Politics, is a prime example of the practical results of this initiative.

David and his colleagues at Salt Lake City College recently calculated that their OER initiative has allowed them to save over $20 million in textbook costs alone, and over the recent few years, have seen their use rise to the tune of several thousand students (and counting)! 

From these openly licensed materials, both students and academics can freely share, mix, modify, and even create their own references and textbooks, which they can share back to the academic community at large to continue to drive this movement and the benefits it generates for academia overall. 

A college education still holds great value for students and the societies they serve, but there are more and greater challenges to overcome today for many who want access to higher education. Will it get better or worse?

Many in academia – certainly Dr. Hubert – are doing all they can to ease the burden on students and provide a more rewarding journey through integrated learning and initiatives like Open Educational Resources. 

But in the end, only time will tell.

Hear more from Dr. David Hubert and get the details on how politics and bureaucracy affect academic institutions, Salt Lake City College’s integrated learning, and student engagement strategies, and more — listen to the full episode here

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