Ask the Expert: Why College Matters

Nicholas Bowman, associate professor of higher education and student affairs and director of the Center for Research on Undergraduate Education (CRUE), is examining the reasons that students do not complete college and the importance of college success. “We know through our research that when people get college degrees, they’re much more likely to get jobs, be healthy, exercise moral reasoning, and become civically involved in their communities,” Bowman says. “The power that college has to shape individuals throughout their lives and actually shape other people with whom they interact is amazing.”

Bowman says that there are many reasons for attaining a college degree, but one that’s especially significant is the economic outcomes for students who don’t graduate. Studies have found that just over half of those who start college receive a degree. 

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According to Bowman, student debt has become a serious issue, in part because a greater proportion of students are taking on loans to fund their education

“When students attend college for a couple years and drop out, they can leave with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and without the premium of the credential and benefits a college degree provides,” says Bowman. “Default rates are an increasing concern. With college student debt well over a trillion dollars,even with a well-paying job student loans can be difficult to pay back.” 

Bowman attributes increased debt loads in part due to fewer grants and scholarships, which he correlates to an overarching shift in American attitudes toward higher education. “There’s a prevailing logic today that higher education is a private good, and therefore the responsibility lies with the student to fund their education,” he says. 

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But research shows that if more people are educated, society improves because there aren’t substantial gaps based on circumstances into which people are born and the identities others perceive. 

“There’s evidence that when people live in unequal environments, say in terms of socioeconomic inequality, that this results in poor health and well-being for everyone regardless of where you are on the spectrum,” he says. “Part of what we can do at CRUE is understand how to improve student outcomes and narrow gaps, which will certainly help everyone.” 

Ultimately , Bowman says that the goal of college isn’t just for students to succeed and graduate, but to take that growth and expand it to everything they do. 

When we have a more educated society,” he says, “everyone benefits through greater civic engagement, greater understanding of issues, and greater inclination and ability to weigh in on those concerns.”