The September issue of US News & World Report has the most recent rankings of the Best Colleges. However, I think what’s interesting is the article “Is College Still Worth it?” Instead of which college to attend, the question it asks is whether to go to college, given the rising costs at as much as $50,000 a year.

What is the return on investment in higher education? What is the return? How do we measure? The article didn’t answer these questions but pointed in the right direction.

Unfortunately, what’s not clear is whether the product an education is getting any better or any easier to evaluate.

If colleges were businesses, they would be ripe for hostile takeovers, complete with serious cost-cutting and painful reorganizations. You can be sure those business analysts would ask: Is the consumer getting the product we promised? What do you actually learn here? Can you guarantee a job? Admission to graduate school? There are ways to gauge these things, but colleges have just recently fended off a movement to demand such outcomes measures.

The common argument to support the ROI has been the fact that, on average, “people with a college degree earn significantly more money over their lifetimes than those without a college degree.” But the flaw is in the unspoken “on average” in such data and the meaning of “significantly”. The Six Sigma training in me always makes me ask “what is the variation in each group?” and “what are the factors that contribute to the variation?”

People making decisions based on such general differences between averages run the risk of not getting sufficient ROI or any at all. Although education decisions are highly personal, people could apply DMAIC thinking to make it a more informed decision.

  • Define: Decide what return you want from higher education. The metrics can be money (marketable skills), connection/networking, joy of learning, knowledge and understanding of the world itself, etc. Prioritize what is most Critical to your Education (CTE) and focus on maximizing that, very much like a CTQ defined for a LSS project.
  • Measure: Collect data on how well each college delivers the CTE metric, and make sure that all data are equivalent or measured similarly before comparing them.
  • Analyze: Ask the question “what critical factors contribute to the higher value of the CTE metric?” For example, if your CTE is marketable skills that pay well and you identified colleges whose graduates received the highest starting salaries, the question is “what factors helped them achieve these skills?” They can be academic disciplines, participation in Co-operative programs, leading a student organization, faculty quality, student quality, student/faculty ratio, or some other indicators used by US News in their rankings. The factors that are most critical to learning marketable skills may not help you understand the world better, and vice versa. Based on a better understanding of relevant causal relationships, choose colleges that excel at those critical factors.
  • Improve: Now you are in a college. Focus on critical factors: choose the right major, team up with the best students, apply for an intern program, join a student club, etc. This is where you realize the return, but only if you focus on the critical factors.
  • Control: The world changes. Your goals and priorities change, too. You will discover new critical factors that are more important to your current goal. Whether you are still in college or have started your career, continue to understand and focus on the critical factors that help you improve. That’s lifetime learning. That’s the spirit of Lean Six Sigma continuous improvement.

[I will write about applying LSS in education and about ROI in LSS training vs. conventional education in my future blogs.]

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