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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

What is an education worth?

The price for a Notre Dame education is $64,775. Other elite universities across the nation have similar or even higher tuition costs. As the figures continue to rise, they have helped to change the perception of higher education.

Once a necessity for inculcating the virtues that sustain a free and democratic polity, colleges and universities are now perceived in a more utilitarian manner; cash is the input, return on investment in the form of a lucrative job is the output.

The new College Scorecard, developed by the Department of Education, draws on data from the Treasury Department and IRS to aggregate the costs and benefits of more than 7,000 colleges and universities across the nation. The database is clearly cost-focused, examining average cost per year after financial aid, graduation rates and the median earnings of graduates.

Students and parents become consumers, and colleges and universities become production facilities that meld students into marketable commodities. President Obama calls this approach a way to “get the most bang for your educational buck.”

Interestingly, College Scorecard does not provide a ranking of schools like for-profit peers such as The Princeton Review or U.S. News and World Report. Following intense pressure from college administrators, the President walked back his statement in 2013 that the government was going to rate and rank colleges by studying the “value” they provide to students.

Due to the complexity of the data and the question of whether or not a federal agency should be able to rank private schools, the government’s decision not to rank colleges was wise. Yet, on the scorecard’s homepage, a sort of implicit ranking exists. A button on the bottom invites users to “check out these schools,” where one can find “23 four-year schools with low costs that lead to high incomes” and “15 public four-year colleges with high graduation leading to high incomes.”

In the database, Notre Dame’s “average annual cost” is listed as $27,845 and its “salary after attending” is $69,400. It is important to note that the average annual cost appears lower than it might be in actuality, as it only reflects average cost to those who are recipients of federal financial aid.

Though the College Scorecard database may be a potentially helpful tool for federal financial aid qualifiers, the underlying message this initiative sends is that the value of Notre Dame, and that of 7,000 other schools in the United States, is measured by their monetary returns. This explicit favoritism toward accumulation of wealth leads to larger questions about the purpose of education as a whole.

The four years we spend on this beautiful campus has more to do with the growth of our hearts and minds than the growth of our bank accounts. As Aristotle once said, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Education is not merely about finding the right answer; it is knowing how and why we arrived at that conclusion in order to appreciate the process. Campus should be a place where complex issues are confronted, preconceived notions are challenged and faculties of critical thinking are stimulated.

Universities such as Notre Dame that strive for something more than mere return on investment — notably the education of the entire person — are given short shrift by examining mere financial metrics.

Those who examine only returns on investment discount the benefits that careers in social services, education, non-profits, service in the military and local government provide to society. Moreover, such a misplaced focus impedes vocational discernment and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, not for its particular ends. Majors such as history, theology, the liberal arts and philosophy suddenly become “less useful” and are not taken seriously.

In a world where, in the words of William Wordsworth, only “getting and spending” seem to matter, we must reclaim education’s original end: fostering the development of heart and mind so that we may better serve God and each other.

Kate is a junior majoring in the program of liberal studies and minoring in philosophy, political science and economics. She hails from Pittsburgh and is a proud member of Breen-Phillips Hall. Contact her at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.