What is College Worth? A Question Worth Asking…and Measuring
Last weekend I had the privilege of joining students and families at Lorain County Community College (LCCC) in Ohio for their graduation ceremony. As the commencement speaker, I had been invited to offer up words of wisdom. Yet as I look back on my two recent visits to the campus, I actually think that the students were the ones imparting wisdom to me — particularly about the value of a degree or certificate.
When the Gates Foundation began partnering with LCCC in 2011, it was as part of a broader initiative with eight other community colleges called the Completion By Design Initiative. The colleges were selected because of their willingness to commit to long-term, large-scale change to better serve their students. Over the years LCCC has focused on innovations like strengthening their academic and advising services and establishing an early alert system to get students help before they fall off track. The results have been impressive — since 2011, LCCC has increased the percentage of students receiving a degree or certificate by nearly 80 percent.
But stories like LCCC’s aren’t the norm in higher education today, and public perceptions reflect that. According to a recent poll from Pew Research Center, roughly 6 in 10 Americans say higher education is heading in the wrong direction. Why? Well, it depends on who you ask, but the rising cost and debt load for students is certainly a key reason, as is the concern that students aren’t being taught the skills they need to succeed in the workforce.
I think this poll illustrates that students and their families are raising important questions. They are asking questions like, “What is a college degree or certificate actually worth? Is it going to help me get a job? Is the money I’m spending to get a degree going to help me earn more money in the future?”
To help answer these questions — for students and families, but also for higher ed institutions — we at the Gates Foundation believe the place to start is to first establish what it is we mean by value. What is the value of a degree or certificate, and how can that be measured?
Last week, our foundation announced the formation of a national panel of leaders from inside and outside higher education to study this very subject. Led by the Gates Foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellmann (a former college chancellor herself), and Mildred Garcia, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Commission on the Value of Postsecondary Education (Postsecondary Value Commission) includes a wide range of higher education stakeholders, including college and university and state system leaders, researchers, business and community leaders, advocates, policymakers, and students. Ultimately, they will be responsible for completing a few critical tasks:
Proposing a definition of postsecondary value to guide institutional improvement efforts and policy conversations about increasing post-college economic success and mobility for students.
Creating a framework to measure how programs at specific colleges and universities create value for students and where gaps exist by race and income.
Issuing recommendations for sharing and applying the definition and measurement framework to advance understanding of value among families, students, and higher ed leaders.
While the commission’s work will focus mostly on the economic returns of education after high school, we also realize that there are significant non-economic returns to “college.” Critical and creative thinking skills, social connections and social capital, and enhanced health and civic participation are all dividends that research shows can come from earning a degree or certificate. They too contribute to students being able to live a better life.
When I think about the value of education after high school, I know I don’t think only of the cost and return. I also think about the life-altering power of education and its ability to create opportunity for generation after generation. I think of the students I met in the months leading up to graduation at LCCC.
I think of Chris Mariner, who dropped out of high school but returned to LCCC to earn his degree in microelectronic manufacturing. He told me he made the decision to go back to school because he wants to be able to provide opportunities for his kids that he never had growing up.
I think of Marjorie Cintron — a grandmother of five who dutifully raised her family for decades until finally, in her 60s, she decided it was time to pursue her own education. Last weekend, she walked across the graduation stage alongside her granddaughter Eleana, who was graduating LCCC’s early college high school program and earning her associate degree while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. Eleana also happens to be the youngest intern NASA has ever had. Perhaps it was her grandmother’s inspiration that encouraged Eleana reach for the stars?
I also think of Kenneth Glynn, who faced a choice when the steel mill he worked for closed down: should he continue down his current path, or go back to school and reinvent himself? Kenneth chose the latter path, and today he works for LCCC as an adult outreach coordinator. He believes he’s found his calling, and his job allows him to go out into his community and light the path for others to follow.
If I looked at LCCC purely through an economic lens, I would see that yes, LCCC has the second-lowest tuition in the state, and 83 percent of LCCC grads are working within eight months of graduating. Those are great indicators of real value for students. But what the stories of Chris, Marjorie, and Kenneth show is that a degree or credential also has the power to change lives. To understand the full and true value of college, we need to understand how those pieces fit together and how colleges and universities can use that knowledge to create more opportunity for students.