College & Workforce Readiness

Does Higher Ed Really Pay Off? New Gates-Funded Commission Aims to Find Out

By Catherine Gewertz — May 16, 2019 3 min read
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As the cost of college rises and students go deeper into debt to finance it, families are increasingly asking whether higher education is worth the pricetag. A new commission has begun a project to provide information that could help answer that question.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which funnels millions into education, announced Thursday that it has organized a group called the “Value Commission,” which will work over the next year to assemble data to help answer questions like this: How do I know that getting a bachelor’s degree is going to help me earn more in my field than getting an associate degree? What kinds of degrees or certificates are most powerful in moving low-income students up the economic prosperity ladder?

Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann, who will co-chair the commission, said during a conference call with reporters last week that education beyond high school is still “the best bet” for young people’s futures. But students and families need more information to help them decide which post-high school pathways are best for them, she said.

Colleges and universities also need a better understanding of how well they’re contributing to economic opportunity for students, Mildred Garcia, the president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and another commission co-chair, told reporters.

A New Way to Judge the Value of Higher Ed?

The commission intends to create a way of defining and measuring the return on investment that postsecondary education or training delivers. Its 30 members include leaders in higher education, business, advocacy, and research.

Some of the ground it intends to cover is already the focus of other projects that have informed the public debate, and will serve as resources for the commission.

The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, for instance, provides data showing colleges’ average cost and graduation rate, and the median salaries of students who received financial aid 10 years later. Opportunity Insights, based at Harvard University, uses “big data” to show how the transformative power of education is distributed unevenly. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has published a bevy of studies exploring the earnings that come with various types of certificates and degrees. (The Center’s director, Anthony Carnevale, is one of the new commission’s members.)

Garcia said that the new panel will produce more than “a report that will just go on the shelf.” It’s aiming to offer “actionable, relevant information,” she said. It wasn’t entirely clear yet what form the commission’s findings will take. But officials on the call said the data and research they assemble will be be easily available to the public through the group’s website.

The aim of the new panel isn’t to produce a set of college ratings or rankings, but to define a way to think about, and evaluate, college that focuses on its economic benefits. For instance: How much power does a bachelor’s degree in English have to help a student repay her loan debt compared to a master’s degree in engineering or an associate degree in automotive technology? And do those numbers change if the analysis focuses on students of color, or low-income students?

See also: People are Putting Less Faith in Four-Year College Degrees, Poll Finds

The commission is still figuring out how much to focus analysis on the vast and complicated terrain of certifications and training programs that fall short of an associate degree. Michelle Asha Cooper, the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, told reporters that the group will be “looking at the sub-associate level where there are reliable data available from reputable sources.”

The Institute for Higher Education Policy will be the managing partner of the Value Commission, lending logistics and analytical support during its year of work. It will also form the research panel that will support the panel as it explores and assembles data for public use.

Desmond-Hellman said that while the Gates Foundation has supported the launch of the Value Commission, it hasn’t yet set aside a specific amount of money for grants to support it.

Related story: How a Wichita Lineman Is Changing the Conversation About College Readiness

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.