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States’ Vital Role in Raising the Value of Higher Ed for Everyone

Too many students from disadvantaged backgrounds spend a lot on postsecondary education without seeing an economic return. A new initiative is enlisting states to work toward equitable outcomes.

Silhouette of students throwing their graduation caps in the air on graduation day.
My path to obtaining a college degree was as much a function of luck as anything else. It was only because I was able to access scholarships and jobs to pay for school that I was able to complete my degree. Even then, I graduated with a lot of debt, but my career choice afforded me a good salary to pay it off. I was able to see a positive return on my investment in postsecondary education.

That’s not the case for many students, particularly those in low-income communities, Black and Latino students, and women who often face increased obstacles to obtaining a degree and don’t see a return on investment — something higher education is coming to understand as postsecondary value. That value as defined by the Postsecondary Value Commission — a diverse group of college leaders, policymakers, students and others — is a measure, for both students and the larger society, of economic and non-economic returns, upward mobility, and racial and socioeconomic justice.

For decades, earning a college degree was seen as a sure path to economic mobility. Today, however, hundreds of thousands of college students invest tens of thousands of dollars in their education without earning enough after graduation to experience an economic return. Students who don’t receive the support they need and don’t complete their degree fare even worse.

We’re still at a place in our country where race, ethnicity and income are predictors of student success. The baccalaureate attainment rate by age 24 for a student from a low-income background is 15 percent compared to 59 percent for a student from an upper-income background. The percentage of Latino adults with at least an associate’s degree is 20 points lower than that of white adults, and a household headed by a white college graduate has eight times the wealth of a household headed by a Black college graduate.

This is not acceptable.

With the concerning decline in higher education enrollment of more than a million students over the past two years, a decline in the percentage of people rating their return on investment in postsecondary education as excellent or good (from 76 percent to 67 percent), and more people asking “what is college worth?,” states have an opportunity to engage and be part of the solution. That begins by prioritizing postsecondary value, collaborating across education and workforce agencies, and working with postsecondary institutions to promote equitable economic outcomes for all students.

Three states — Arkansas, Indiana and Kentucky — are doing just that as part of the first cohort of the Value Data Collaborative, an initiative led by the Institute for Higher Education Policy and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

State policymakers and higher education leaders in those three states will analyze education and workforce data and compare the outcomes of individuals who completed a college degree and those who didn’t. By conducting robust, equity-focused analyses to measure postsecondary performance against a series of earnings thresholds, state leaders can make better-informed decisions and develop strategies that lead to more equitable economic outcomes for all students.

This work is already happening in some states. Earlier this year, for example, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board released a new statewide strategic plan anchored on a goal of producing credentials of value.

Insights from the Value Data Collaborative will be shared publicly to help create a scalable approach that more states can and should adopt, including through the Equitable Value Explorer, a web tool designed to help institutions examine whether their students are experiencing equitable post-college earnings.

The collaborative’s work builds on the Postsecondary Value Commission’s recommendations. As the commission’s report put it, “if postsecondary education can ensure equitable attainment for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds ... it will have a tangible payoff for society in terms of a stronger economy, an increased tax base ... and a more diverse and prepared workforce.”

States can play a vital role in improving postsecondary value for students. Collectively, we have an opportunity to deliver on the promise of higher education for millions of students and not leave their postsecondary outcomes to chance.

Allan Golston is the U.S. Program president for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, leading the foundation’s efforts to advance educational opportunity and economic mobility in the United States.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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