The “Why” and “Why Now” of Postsecondary Value

Sue Desmond-Hellmann, Mildred García, and Michelle Asha Cooper

August 19, 2019

We launched the Postsecondary Value Commission earlier this year to help students and families, policymakers, and college and university leaders better understand the benefits of education after high school and expand the national conversation about higher education beyond costs and debt. Two fundamental questions have dominated our work since: Why? And why now?

Why is defining and measuring value so important?

Education after high school is one of the most significant investments that Americans make, and one of the most consequential. There is a great deal of evidence – and inspiring stories – that demonstrate how earning a certificate or degree can change the trajectory of a person’s life. Stories of people like Kenneth Glynn and Luis Talavera demonstrate the power of that journey to a certificate or degree. But we need a better understanding of how that journey plays out for more students and their families, especially those from low-income backgrounds and communities of color.

We know that there are positive returns – economic and non-economic – to education after high school, but they are often poorly defined and hard to quantify. We seek to clearly identify and measure returns on postsecondary investments. This includes finding jobs and building careers with family-supporting wages, being able to repay student debt and save for the next generation, improving economic mobility, and boosting critical thinking skills and civic participation.

We also know that there are disparities in many of those returns by race and income, and we need to be absolutely clear about these as well. For example, a Black student who graduates from a public four-year university is more likely to have higher debt and lower earnings than a white student graduating from the same type of institution. Similar gaps exist between low- and higher-income students. Colleges and universities have an important role to play in closing these gaps. So much of what we know about postsecondary value is based on averages that obscure real and persistent inequities, and we aim to change that to help address racial and economic inequality.

A better understanding of postsecondary value will help students and families make critical decisions about where and what to study, equip campus leaders to provide more effective guidance and support for students, and aid policymakers seeking greater transparency about outcomes, both while students are in college and after they graduate.

Why is value so important now?

While understanding the value of education after high school has always been important, it is becoming increasingly urgent, for two reasons. One is that rapidly rising costs and student debt are causing Americans to be more skeptical of higher education. Recent surveys show that a majority of Americans believe that colleges and universities are moving in the wrong direction and point to cost and debt as the primary reason for their concern. There is also a strong sense that institutions can do a better job in helping students get a good return on their investment, especially guiding more to finish and finish on time. Better information about post-college outcomes won’t erase concerns about costs and debt but will help balance them with an understanding of the “benefit” side of the cost/benefit equation.

Another reason is that concerns about cost and value are fueling a troubling narrative that “not everyone should go to college.” We can all agree that education after high school is not a “one size fits all” endeavor. But we can – and should – also agree that everyone needs some form of education or training after high school. Unless we can clearly define the value that education can add, people for whom college has always been an option will continue to question its worth, especially for those who our system has historically and systematically left behind. That will only reinforce and possibly widen gaps in college access and success when we need exactly the opposite.

In addition to urgency, there is also opportunity. We now have debt and earnings data (and we will have even more soon) that open the door to more informed analysis and discussion of returns and value. We owe it to our students and their families, our colleges and universities, and those making policy decisions to bring the best information we can to the table.

The focus on postsecondary education in this country has evolved in good and necessary ways over the past decade or so. It has moved from just getting to college to getting to and through college. We’re now at a moment where we can begin to build on that work and more clearly define what student success means beyond graduation and how higher education can live up to its potential as an engine of opportunity. We need to expedite that evolution, and the Postsecondary Value Commission is working to help do just that.

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