Gates Foundation Aims to Redefine College Value

A new definition of college value has been proposed by a research effort supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and managed by the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

According to the final report of the Commission on the Value of Postsecondary Education:

“Students experience postsecondary value when provided equitable access and support to complete quality, affordable credentials that offer economic mobility and prepare them to advance racial and economic justice in our society.”

It’s a definition that underscores how higher education offers different outcomes for students depending on their race and gender, what colleges they attend, and whether they actually earn a degree.

These discrepancies have not always been recognized in calculations about what a college degree is worth, according to Patrick Methvin, director of Postsecondary Success for the Gates Foundation.

“Our initial focus was too light on equity,” he said during a webinar on Tuesday announcing the results of the report.

The commission worked for two years to develop a new framework for measuring just how much better off a graduate is after attending college. The schema computes whether, 10 years after earning a college degree, a graduate earns:

  • as much as a high school graduate, plus enough to recoup the cost of college;
  • at least the median pay in his or her field of study;
  • as much as an average peer who typically has more advantage (so that women earn as much as men, and people of color earn as much as white people, etc.)
  • enough to achieve economic mobility by moving into the fourth income quintile.

Using these measures to assess the state of U.S. higher education, the report found that many selective colleges provide high value but serve too few poor students and students of color, while many open-access colleges enroll diverse students but do not provide as much of a pay-off. Most, but not all, U.S. colleges help alumni recoup their tuition costs and earn more than a high-school graduate—a threshold that the report argues should be the minimum standard for higher ed value. And the report argues that that should be true even for degree programs like education and social work, which offer relatively low wages but high social benefits.

Using the University of Texas system as a sample dataset, the report found that more than half of all college completers earn enough to achieve economic mobility within 15 years of graduation. This serves, the report says, as a “counter to the common narrative that programs like liberal arts or education do not provide a path to economic mobility.”

The commission was made up of 30 members and co-led by Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and Sue Desmond-Hellmann, former CEO of the Gates Foundation.

The group also published a set of policy and practice recommendations for how college leaders and officials can improve the value of postsecondary education for everyone by making college more accessible, affordable and completable, as well as making data about student outcomes and equity more transparent.

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