Along with many of the nation's million and a half professors, I saw the recent apparent discovery of the Higgs boson particle as a great moment not only for science but for American education as well. Somehow, lost in the discussion of the discovery and the cost of the facility at which it took place, we managed to miss the real action that unveiled the Higgs: persons nurtured, selected, and paid to think. By universities.
As our nation continues to endure a prolonged economic struggle, the cost of higher education has become a focus for many because the price of attendance has outpaced inflation consistently and significantly. This has led to myriad articles, reports, analyses and predictions that focus on just two dimensions associated with a college education: the total cost of attendance (or a surrogate for total cost, like the debt with which a typical student graduates) and the starting pay a graduating college senior can expect. Most of these articles view education the way I view a stock purchase: How much did I pay to get in, and how much did I get the moment I got out? From there, a simple subtraction tells me whether the experience was worthwhile.
Lost in this return on investment (ROI) conversation are the many outcomes associated with high quality education. One of them is a critical, necessary function of a high-quality university: the production of scholarship. This is where the Higgs discovery reveals something important to us. The $10 billion CERN facility at which the boson was discovered produces nothing without the thousands of scientists who work on its experiments. In the case of the Higgs discovery, more than 1,700 Ph.D. physicists were engaged in one team, along with nearly as many students. About 6,000 scientists were involved, total.
Taking one step deeper, we realize that the work of the thousands of Higgs scientists is based on tens of thousands of discoveries of their colleagues and predecessors — an army of thought. Who pays for this legion, and who pays for their experiments? Several articles on the Higgs discovery note the support from European governments for laboratories, experiments and personnel. But in many cases, the salaries of scholars, and much of the operational expenses associated with their work, are paid for by universities. The sources of the funds are many. In addition to government grants, American scholarship receives support from corporations, foundations, alumni and friends.
Much of the funding, however, ultimately comes from one of the two factors of the ROI calculation: student tuition. Though some may find it unfair that student tuition money should support the analysis of subatomic particle collisions, we must recognize that many of the creations from which all our students and all non-students benefit — from microwave ovens to psychological therapy to organizational efficiencies to the understanding of religions and cultures — can be linked directly to the work of university personnel. If scholarly activities are not funded by university resources like tuition, our nation's stellar pace of innovation and the competitive edge it brings us will be slowed, unless other resources like philanthropy or government support are correspondingly increased.
Even if one prefers that we shift the cost of innovation away from tuition and toward more general public support, we need to acknowledge the value of scholarship to our students' education. One key element of the Higgs discovery is that it is consistent with physicists' current "Standard Model" of the Universe. With the Higgs discovery, we now have assurance that the Standard Model deserves our continued attention. This sets a stage for further discovery.
In the same way the Higgs scientists took what they learned at universities to a new level, today's university students will learn from exceptional educators and transform what we currently know into findings that will benefit humankind further — those who are here, and those who are to come. The result is that the tuition dollars of students, in part, drive innovation, and that innovation drives their and our creative futures through expansion of their education.
As pundits and officials continue to consider higher education and its value, we need to expand our scope not only beyond the simplicity of ROI that looks only at total cost and graduates' starting salaries, but to the wider vista of contributions that higher education brings to our students and to our global society. Though we still have yet to uncover the ultimate origin of the Higgs boson, the ultimate origin of its discovery is our continued investment in America's greatest asset: higher education. And its return is immeasurable.