Published in the July 11, 2018 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
On June 5, 2017, I was pleased to preside over my fifth Commencement as president of Princeton. Under sunny skies in front of Nassau Hall, I congratulated our graduates on their accomplishments and encouraged them to become advocates for the value of higher education. Here are my remarks. – C.L.E.
In a few minutes, all of you will march through FitzRandolph Gate as newly minted graduates of this University. Before you do, it is my privilege to say a few words about the path that lies ahead.
It is indeed a privilege, and also a joy, to address you, for all of you who graduate today have accomplished something genuinely important and worth celebrating. You have completed a demanding course of study. It will transform your life in many ways. It will expand the range of vocations you can pursue, increase your knowledge of the world, deepen your capacity to appreciate societies and cultures, and provide a foundation for life-long learning.
So we celebrate here on the lawn in front of Nassau Hall, as do other college communities in courtyards, auditoria, arenas, and stadia around the country. Graduates toss caps in the air and professors applaud. Families cheer and holler enthusiastically. Yet, even as we do so, we see a strange trend from columnists, bloggers, think tanks, and politicians. In essays, books, and speeches, some of them suggest that too many students are earning college degrees.
Too many college graduates: that is a very odd claim, because the economic evidence for the value of a college degree is overwhelming. For example, in 2014, economists Jaison Abel and Richard Deitz of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimated the average annual return on investment from a college degree, net of tuition paid and lost earnings, at between 9 percent and 16 percent per year for a lifetime. For the last two decades, the return on investment has hovered at the high end of that range, around 15 percent per year.
By comparison, the historical average return on investments in the American stock market is around 7 percent per year. That is why my friend Morton Shapiro, the president of Northwestern University and a leading educational economist, says that for most people, the decision to invest in a college degree will be “the single best financial decision they make in a lifetime,” even if it were judged purely in financial terms.
A degree conveys many other benefits as well. For example, college graduates report higher levels of happiness and job satisfaction, even after controlling for income. College graduates are healthier than non-graduates. They are more likely to exercise, more likely to vote, and have higher levels of civic engagement. To these pragmatic considerations we should add the joys that come with an increased capacity to appreciate culture, the arts, the world’s diversity, and the inherent beauty of extraordinary ideas.
The numbers I have quoted are not specific to Princeton. On the contrary, they are averages over all four-year degrees, in all fields, from all colleges in the United States. Think about that for a moment: on average, all degrees in all fields from all colleges generate an annual return between 9 percent and 16 percent, and this return is supplemented by additional benefits to health, happiness, and the quality of life. How could anyone think we need fewer college graduates?
Some people answer that you can learn a trade without getting a college degree. Welders, they observe, can make more money than many college graduates. That’s true. There are, of course, reasons why you might want to get a college degree even if you plan to become a welder. You might worry, for example, about what happens if technology renders your trade obsolete, or arthritis leaves you unable to practice it, or you want to move into management or explore other interests. A college degree equips you to respond to the changes—to yourself, and to the world—that inevitably occur over a lifetime.
Still, if pundits and politicians were saying only that America needs better vocational training, I could agree wholeheartedly. It would be terrific if more people could get the training they need to practice a trade. But at the same time it would also be great if more people, not fewer, could receive the extraordinary benefits that come with a college degree.
So I ask again: why would anyone think we need fewer college graduates? I think there is a simple answer. Education requires high-quality teaching. Teaching, in turn, depends upon skilled labor, which is expensive. As a result, the up-front cost for education is real, large, and very easy to measure. The returns are equally real and even larger, but they accrue over a lifetime, are hard to measure, and vary from person to person. It is tempting to wish that you could get more certainty at lower cost.
The people who call for fewer degrees yield to that temptation. They emphasize the short-term. They focus almost entirely on the price of college and on the salaries students might earn in their first jobs. That is a mistake.
A college education is a long-term investment. It enables graduates to develop and adapt, and it pays off spectacularly in the long run. The idea that we would be better off with fewer college graduates is a short-term swindle, a swindle that would cheat America’s young people, weaken the nation’s economy, and undermine our future. We need to have the confidence to invest in our young people and to ensure that a college education is accessible and affordable for students from all backgrounds and financial circumstances.
I hope that all of you who graduate today, and who experience the power of education in your own lives, will become advocates for the value of higher education in our society. There is a national conversation taking place right now about the value of higher education, and we need your voice in that conversation. We need you, in other words, to help others to achieve in the future what you achieve today.
How can you help more students earn college degrees? Here are three suggestions. First, become advocates for the importance of completion rates. A college education produces a tremendous return—if you get the degree. Returns are much lower if you start college but do not get the degree. The highest default rates on student loans do not involve college graduates with big debts. They instead involve students with small debts who never finish college and so never get the earnings boost that comes with a degree.
A few moments ago, we awarded an honorary degree to President Barbara Gitenstein. Over her nearly two decades leading The College of New Jersey, she raised the College’s four-year graduation rate from 58 percent to 75 percent. That number that puts TCNJ’s on-time completion rate among the top 10 in the nation for public colleges and universities. By raising TCNJ’s graduation rate, President Gitenstein has improved the lives of thousands of students who might have left school with debt but no degree. Be an advocate for higher education leaders like Bobby Gitenstein, and for colleges like TCNJ that commit to improving completion rates.
Second, support America’s public institutions of higher education. State subsidies for public colleges and universities have declined precipitously, and state funding represents an increasingly small share of the budget at public research universities. At the University of Michigan, for example, state funding now accounts for only about 9 percent of total revenues. In the 1950s, by contrast, that number was 80 percent. Tuition at state universities has risen not because they have increased their expenditures per student, but because state legislatures have hollowed out their other sources of support.
America depends on its public colleges and universities. They are engines of social mobility and innovation. Princeton and other private universities make essential contributions to the nation and the world—but there is no way that we could ever replace America’s great public institutions. They are a national treasure, and I urge you to support them.
Third, stand up for the importance of enabling more students from low-income families to earn college degrees. Princeton’s Great Class of 2018 graduates today as the most socioeconomically diverse class in the 272-year history of this University. You will not hold that record for long. Other classes already at Princeton will break your record. Our graduate programs are likewise drawing upon new sources of talent: this spring we admitted the most socioeconomically diverse class of doctoral students in Princeton University’s history.
At Princeton we believe in socioeconomic diversity because we know that to achieve excellence as a University and as a nation we must draw talent from every sector of society. We know, too, that a Princeton degree is a rocket-booster for students seeking socioeconomic mobility. If we want to heal the divisions that inequality has produced in this country, we must ensure that students from low-income backgrounds receive the educations they need to develop their abilities and contribute to our society.
As I look out at this marvelous class of undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degree recipients, I take pride in your excellence and your diversity, and I am excited about the contributions you will make in the years ahead. The world needs more college degrees, not fewer. We need more celebrations like the one we hold today, with more proud families and happy graduates ready to go out and make a positive difference in the world. All of us on this platform are thrilled to be a part of your celebration. We applaud your achievements. We send our best wishes as you begin the adventures that lie ahead, and we look forward to welcoming you back to this campus on future visits. To all of our graduates, congratulations and best wishes!
 Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz, “Do the Benefits of College Still Outweigh the Costs?” Federal Reserve Bank of New York: Current Issues in Economics and Finance (August 1, 2014).
 James Pierson, “The Fall of Big State U,” The Weekly Standard (June 15, 2015) https://www.weeklystandard.com/james-piereson/the-fall-of-big-state-u