Measuring the 'Value' of Higher Education

In nearly all aspects of life, we want our time and money spent well. Same is true for those in pursuit of higher education.
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In nearly all aspects of life, we want our time and money spent well. Same is true for those in pursuit of higher education. Today's students attend college for a variety of reasons, and whether enrolled in a degree/certificate program or personal enrichment course, everyone wants their money's worth. But how exactly is "value" assessed? Students get the best bang for their dollar when a quality education is offered at an affordable price. In other words, AFFORDABLE education + QUALITY education = REAL VALUE.

Evoking a term like value in higher education conversations often leads people to think about salary -- focusing on the economic and workforce benefits of a college degree. Certainly, that's a critical and practical part of the equation. But, value should also focus on outcomes that prepare students for lifelong learning and long-term professional success and contributions to the social good.

To better gauge value, students need to ask -- and receive answers to -- some straightforward questions: How much does college cost and how do students pay? How many -- and which -- students complete their degrees? And what do graduates experience after college in the workplace and society? These may seem like easy questions to which we should already have the answers, but the truth is this information is not readily available.

In recent years, a growing number of efforts to provide better data have emerged, including institutional initiatives (e.g., Voluntary System of Accountability, Voluntary Framework for Accountability) as well as websites like College Results Online and the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard. While all represent steps in the right direction, many of these tools are limited by the federal data on which they rely that currently excludes far too many of today's students. Given the importance of these data, federal data sources should (and can) be improved.

Other efforts, such as popular college rankings seek to inform the college decision-making process as well. However, for students who truly desire the "best value," relying solely on rankings would be a mistake, as they tend to reflect more about institutional reputation and prestige while remaining largely silent on access, affordability, learning, and outcomes. Not to mention that the majority of today's students -- many of whom are geographically- and financially-constrained -- attend non-competitive colleges that are often excluded from these rankings.

Last summer, President Obama introduced the idea of a college rating system to provide better data and answer important questions about the value of a college education. We support the federal rating system and have provided recommendations and recently published a report that would aid in its creation by helping to improve federal data.

For optimal impact, this rating system (or, as we recommend, systems) must be developed and applied in such a way to meet dual purposes: Better student information and institutional accountability. Better information can act as a form of "soft accountability," allowing students to "vote with their feet." However, given the immense -- and growing -- student and public investment in higher education, we cannot afford "soft accountability" alone. Taxpayers invest billions of dollars in higher education through student financial aid, research and development, and tax exemptions, so policymakers need better information on institutional costs, tuition prices, and student outcomes to protect and leverage this investment.

Several institutional leaders and associations have expressed strong objections toward the ratings system(s). Yet, many of these same leaders support -- either implicitly or explicitly -- rankings, such as the U.S. News & World Report, which we know can spur institutional decision-making in unproductive ways and have minimal impact on college-going for the masses of students.

Although the words are similar -- rankings and ratings -- let's be clear, the premise and intended outcomes are totally different. And for those seeking to improve opportunity for today's college students, the focus must be on value. As it stands, too many students spend too much time and too much money at institutions that offer them far too few chances of success.

Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington. D.C.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization celebrating more than 20 years as a "champion of access and success" for all students -- with a special focus on underserved populations -- by providing timely research to inform public policy decisions.

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