The LEAP Challenge Blog

Cost, Quality, and Well-Being: A Closer Look at the Gallup-Purdue Index

Early this month, Gallup released another summary of data gathered in the Gallup-Purdue Index, a national study of the lives of college graduates. The latest summary, focused on the relationship between debt and long-term well-being, finds that college graduates who took out large loans for school are less likely than those with no debt “to be thriving in four of five elements of well-being” (purpose, financial, community, and physical—differences related to social well-being were not statistically significant).

That data point has inspired a flurry of apocalyptic student-debt articles, most prominently at the Wall Street Journal, but Susan Dynarski had a slightly different take on the New York Times Upshot blog. As Dynarski points out, the comparison highlighted in the WSJ article and others is between graduates with no student loan debt and those with more than $50,000 in debt. These are hardly comparable populations: more than 40 percent of graduates borrow nothing for their education, while only a small percentage borrow $50,000 or more (Gallup-Purdue puts this figure at 11 percent; other sources, including the College Board survey Dynarski cites, put it as low as 2 percent).

It’s a bit sensationalist to draw dire conclusions about the well-being of college graduates based on this comparison, but such articles are actually flawed in an even more fundamental way: they ignore what those students receive in exchange for these loans. As Dynarski puts it, “The relevant question to ask is not: Would you be better off with another $50,000 in your bank account? Rather it’s: Would you be better off with no debt and no degree?”

And it’s well established that college offers considerable payoff—financial and otherwise—even for those who take out loans to pay for their education. The College Board reported last year that “the median four-year college graduate who enrolls at age 18 and graduates in four years can expect to earn enough by age 36 to compensate for being out of the labor force for four years, as well as for borrowing the full amount required to pay tuition and fees without any grant assistance” (emphasis mine). The same report also finds that college graduates are more likely to vote and to work in jobs where they feel intellectually stimulated, and less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking.

A college degree is, on average, a very good investment, and it’s an even better investment for those graduates who engage in time-intensive educational practices and have meaningful relationships with their instructors, according to that same Gallup-Purdue Index from which the debt and well-being data is drawn. Graduates who “had at least one professor who made them excited about learning, cared about them as a person, and was a mentor, have more than double the odds of being engaged at work and being thriving in well-being”—that’s the second data point in the press release announcing the study. Graduates who participated in internships, extracurricular and cocurricular activities, and projects that took a semester or more to complete are also more than twice as likely to report being engaged at work as those who haven’t had these educational experiences.

These findings complement AAC&U’s research on high-impact practices (HIPS), educational practices that “demand considerable time and effort, facilitate learning outside of the classroom, require meaningful interactions with faculty and students, encourage collaboration with diverse others, and provide frequent and substantive feedback,” according to George Kuh, author of High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. In fact, internships and capstones/long projects, two of the practices cited in the Gallup-Purdue research, are also included on AAC&U’s list of HIPs. Participation in HIPs has been shown to improve student success and retention—especially for students from traditionally underserved populations, such as first-generation, minority, transfer, and low-income students, as AAC&U’s Ashley Finley and Tia McNair have demonstrated.

None of this is meant to diminish the seriousness of rising college costs and student debt, especially for those low-income students for whom higher education offers their best pathway to the middle class. But discussions about the cost of college must also consider issues of quality and value. College is expensive, and these latest data from Gallup suggest that those students who go into debt to pay for college may experience consequences for many years afterward. But that same research also shows that graduates who have rich educational experiences are more likely to thrive after college. Our public discourse about higher education should not be driving potential students away from college because of worries about the cost; instead, we should be urging policy makers to reinvest in higher education so as to make college more affordable for all students, and urging college leaders to make sure the money their institutions spend supports the high-impact practices that help students succeed in college and in life.