The value of higher education has been under scrutiny across the nation as the cost of attending college continues to rise. Is it still worth the investment? This was a central question of a panel featuring UCLA Chancellor Gene Block at the 26th annual Milken Institute Global Conference, held May 2 in Los Angeles.

The panel, moderated by Jeffrey Selingo, a contributor to the Atlantic and the Washington Post, featured Block, Pepperdine University President Jim Gash, Lafayette College President Nicole Hurd and Eric Gertler, executive chairman and CEO of U.S. News & World Report. The group explored the current state of higher education and the role it plays in building our nation’s future. 

During the conversation, Block emphasized the importance of universities in shaping the values and personal qualities of students. While noting that the desire to earn a higher income is a big reason many students attend college — UCLA has in recent years been ranked first in the nation in fostering economic mobility by the New York Times — Block stressed that universities also instill traits like compassion, leadership and a commitment to the common good.

“We try to accept students who will be the future leaders in California and beyond,” he said.

The panel also discussed how universities can serve learners who don’t fit into “traditional” college-going age ranges and support those who wish to learn new skills later in life, which may become increasingly critical as the rise of artificial intelligence impacts certain careers and livelihoods.

Block mentioned UCLA’s efforts to continue to make higher education accessible to the entire Bruin community, highlighting Bruin Promise, a “lifetime warranty” for alumni that allows them to take classes after graduation.

“We are trying to become a full-service provider [for] students’ entire life,” he said of the initiative, which UCLA hopes to broaden. “Our plan is to also try and roll this out to include UCLA employees.”

College rankings also took center stage at the event. For decades, U.S. News & World Report’s rankings have been regarded as a main source for data about and comparisons between institutions of higher education. But when several prominent law and medical schools — including the UCLA School of Law — broke away from the rankings this past fall and winter, the national conversation surrounding rankings took a turn.

Hurd and Block acknowledged that rankings can provide useful information and a starting point for prospective students to explore different institutions, but both had concerns. Hurd pointed out that U.S. News’ seeming overreliance on institutions’ endowment size may bias them against public universities and certain small schools, while Block said that no set of rankings can truly reflect a university’s culture and whether it’s the best match for an individual student.

Toward the end of the panel, Block emphasized that despite the challenges and critical questions facing higher education, colleges and universities continue to be powerful drivers of upward mobility and progress. He added that the true value of a college education is not determined by any single factor but by the impact it has on individual students and how it prepares them and their families to lead more fulfilling lives.

Hurd agreed.

“Higher education is an awesome patchwork quilt,” she said. “Whether it’s community colleges, four-year schools, private or public, it is this beautiful mosaic of opportunity.”