Measuring Value

Is college worth it? Sounds simple — just four words — but immediately two of them you realize are pretty hard to define. The latest development in this debate is out this week, from a star-studded, 30-member commission supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and managed by the Institute for Higher Education Policy. 

The Postsecondary Value Commission released a 115-page report, a step in developing a new framework for how to think about the value of higher education.

It relies heavily on the economic cost and impact, both for individuals and society, of postsecondary credentials. What do people with certain credentials earn? How much does it cost to secure that credential? And does it ultimately move them up the earnings and wealth ladders? Plus, unlike many other reports in recent years, it wrestles with the non-monetary benefits of education to both individuals and society in terms of public health, civic engagement, and personal wellbeing. 

College, the report notes, pays off for some people. But how can we increase its value for more students, more equitably?

More to come from the commission: A public data tool covering thousands of colleges on these measures is planned for late summer.

Meanwhile, three quick things that caught our eye:

1. “College” means a whole bunch of different things — and leads to so many different outcomes. Looking at student-loan defaults puts those gaps in sharp relief. Remarkably, nearly 1 in 2 Black borrowers defaulted on a student loan within 12 years of starting school. 

2. Finishing matters even more for non-white students. According to in-depth data the commission got from the University of Texas system, after 15 years, white students who failed to get a degree earn the same amount as Hispanic ones that did graduate. 

3. There’s not a wealth gap, there’s a wealth chasm. The report authors note that measuring wealth is tricky — as is figuring out what role higher education plays in wealth accumulation, or in knowing what type of wealth students had before starting in college. But talking about the value of postsecondary education has to mean figuring out its role in providing long-term financial security that wealth represents. Think of this as more an aspirational call for better data — just because we can’t measure it now, doesn’t mean we should stop trying. 

This is, after all, a long game: 

“Even after closing racial earnings gaps, the Federal Reserve found it would take approximately 100 years to close racial wealth gaps.”

—Scott Smallwood

+ More coverage of the Postsecondary Value Commission in The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed.

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