Return on Investment

Students, Faculty and Staff Weigh in on ROI

The Princeton Review, Fiske Guide to Colleges, and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance all include UNC Asheville among the ranks of Best Buys and Best Values, but according to a PayScale survey released in March 2014, UNC Asheville is among the schools with the worst return on investment (ROI) when measured by salary and costs, particularly for out-of-state students (-4.8 percent or -$62,500 over a 20-year career). But does ROI measure the value of an education?

“Return on investment and net present value [the two numbers from the PayScale ranking] are concepts developed for making business decisions, such as should I buy a machine or not or should I replace my computer system with a newer and fancier computer system,” explains Associate Professor of Economics Chris Bell. “All that matters in those decisions is dollars and cents. When you start talking about careers and lifetimes, there are a lot of other factors that are more difficult to attach numbers to.” 

Students Speak Up
UNC Asheville students are ready to talk about the value of their education
Giovanni Figaro 
As senior accounting major Giovanni Figaro states, “One of the things that makes my college education worthwhile are the intellectual tools I have been given to prepare me for problems that stretch beyond the textbook and into the real world. Most of my professors make sure to translate the vocabulary, strategies and ideologies we are learning about into road maps for tackling challenges we will likely face in the working world or life in general. Since we take classes across the board, we are that much more prepared to face a wide array of issues and understand many different voices and perspectives.”
Randi Carter 
Senior chemistry major Randi Carter says, “The liberal arts aspect of UNC Asheville makes you not only a scholar of just your major, but also a scholar of the world. This understanding allows for great human interaction that encourages trust, which is something I highly value due to my career path of becoming a doctor. And with my education at UNC Asheville, I know I have some advantages in the competitive process of applying to medical school.”

Economists such as Bell and colleague Leah Greden Mathews, professor of economics and Interdisciplinary
Distinguished Professor of the Mountain South, factor in these nonmonetary values to their research and classes. 

“Literature in economics and other fields such as psychology and sociology help us understand how people use value in their lives,” explains Mathews. “One example is a choosing a residential location. People look at home prices, but they also look at the value of neighborhoods, school quality, and other community amenities.”

With college education constituting one of the biggest investment in a person’s life, second only after a house, it’s easy to try to assess its value in a similar way, but in this case, the individual has a greater role to play in determining the result. What you make out of your college education can be just as important as what you make. 

“When you are talking about a liberal arts degree, we don’t know exactly where it might lead because you can go in many directions,” says UNC Asheville Provost Joe Urgo. “That concept of return on investment starts to break down. How do you measure life satisfaction?”

Sizing up the Change

“In this context, finding a negative return on investment isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it is instead a measure of how much income the students in the sample are willing to give up in order to have jobs they love or to live in places as attractive as Asheville,” says Bell. “The sample of students surveyed by PayScale could easily have included an unusually large number of students intending to go into

such low-paying professions as teaching, social work and the arts. Such students might be willing to give up—and indeed, because the lower-paying majors are well known, consciously choose to give up—some income in exchange for the rewards that come from a life filled with artistic expression or of service to others.”

History professor Dan Pierce is seeing a shift toward that paradigm, particularly as the job market changes over time. 

“The value of a college degree is still there, but it is not going to be realized the day after graduation,” he says. “Instead of retiring at 50-something, these graduates might retire later in their 60s or 70s. So if you consider a 30- to 35-year working career, it’s going to take a few years to get into their career. But this is an opportunity for our students. Those years in your 20s give you the opportunity for service learning such as AmeriCorps or travel. You have the time, energy and youth on your side. That’s the strength of this generation. Students need to be prepared to enjoy those years of their career searching. They have a variety of skills they can take advantage of and they can adapt to a world of work that is rapidly changing.” 

Articulating Degrees of Value

That opportunity for students to expand their concept of career path and redefine their return on investment also can be articulated during the start of their career search, and it’s something that employers are looking for, according to Marlane Mowitz, director of UNC Asheville’s Career Center. 

“We aren’t telling the full story of our value. Our students have the liberal arts mindset—that’s like gold. They come to employers with that mindset, and they bring the expertise of their major too, whether it is in the natural sciences, humanities or social sciences. Our employers are surprised by that expertise. We are training professionals in fields of studies—those are the majors. Our students know how to solve problems and think critically—it’s that knowledge capital that is very important to employers. That’s the return on investment, and it’s in the students’ hands. It’s the students’ understanding of the value that they bring and learning how to articulate it.” 

“When you are talking about a liberal arts degree, we don’t know exactly where it might lead because you can go in many directions. That concept of return on investment starts to break down. How do you measure life satisfaction?” —Joe Urgo, provost

For students in economics, their value can increase over time as they advance in their career and realize a steep salary path with room for growth, says Bell. Predictably, engineering students have experienced 100 percent employment or graduate school acceptance in the past four years with impressive starting salaries, according to UNC Asheville and NC State joint-program director Steve Walsh. However, liberal arts majors have a lot to say about their success and payback too. 

“For example, I’ve had many students who want to go into social work,” says Urgo. “We don’t pay them a lot but their job satisfaction can be immense. Their sense of doing something worthwhile is a tremendous motivator. Do we want to discourage those students by saying they failed in life because their salary is low but they might be keeping hundreds of people alive? In that sense, this concentration on ROI and valuing your education by the money you make is almost a subversive force in society, particularly to students who want to devote themselves to social progress. I see this latest concentration on return on investment is to make 20-year-olds scared again, to frighten them into conformity, and they should know that because they should do something about it.”