Getting behind the numbers when it comes to the value of higher education

Five questions for Excelencia in Education’s Deborah Santiago
Jeff Selingo
The debate over higher education’s value more often than not revolves around quantifiable data points, such as graduate employment rates and average salaries. 

Yet the most substantial benefits of an education might not fit easily into fancy pie charts or percentages. To define the more qualitative advantages of postsecondary education, we recently caught up with Deborah Santiago of Excelencia in Education, who urges college leaders, policymakers, and community partners to prioritize human and societal factors in calculating the return on investment in higher education. Excelencia in Education describes itself as the nation’s premier authority on accelerating Latino student success in higher education As CEO, Santiago says her role is to tell positive stories about people, places, leaders, and opportunities, to make lives and communities stronger.
Why is it important to discuss value in higher education right now?

There's always a cost associated with education. And that cost is not just financial, although that does tend to lead lots of the discourse about affordability and other issues. As individuals, as families, as communities, as a country, we constantly navigate the quantitative and qualitative cost of doing this versus something else. And that doesn't land on all of us in the same way. Cost and benefits look different in different communities, with different individuals, and in different institutions. 

Unfortunately, we too often defer to simple variables, and that constrains some of the broader, critical ways we need to be thinking about value. When the conversation is left at what we can quantitatively measure, we miss out on the more equitable elements, the more societal benefits core to educating and informing folks about themselves, their community, and their world.

Education is not a widget you put things into and always yield the same outcome. The enterprise work, the Postsecondary Value Commission work, it’s overdue. We need a fundamental belief in the value of higher education that transcends simply economic ROI. 

What factors determine value for you?
At the core, higher education is a human enterprise. It is not about the economic system alone, or the costs and benefits that are concrete and tangible. It is also the human element, and that might be harder to measure. 
Education is a personal value proposition, a value proposition as human as the folks who want to contribute and increase their quality of life. When you're looking at a community like the young, fast-growing Latino population, we need to make sure opportunities are expanded and investment is sufficient, so they are able to glean that opportunity. That's what motivates me, and it’s what I wrestle with regarding value.

We all make choices. The choice to get an education is predicated on a belief that a quality education can improve the quality of life and access to opportunities—that a person can make a positive difference for their family, for people in their communities. And yes, we can financially quantify benefits. But we can also see increased civic engagement, critical thinking, health benefits, and the knowledge of where to go to get support in a very complicated world. All of that is informed by an educational experience. 

I increasingly see the divide between those who do have and do not have an education, that gives me pause, and compels me to take action.
What should campus leaders and policymakers do to improve value?
We all need to keep this focus of value about people, about society. Leaders of higher education institutions should be clear about who they're serving, and even who are they not serving. And whether it’s meeting a student partway there or helping them to adapt so they can meet their goals—we have to focus on that. 

We’ve concentrated on the enterprise of higher education, rather than how to adapt and evolve to ensure the core value of education, which is people’s ability to contribute, and for us to benefit as both individuals and society. 

Funders, policymakers, and educators, frame and reframe value using their own lens. Institutional and community leaders should challenge themselves to define value in a way that engages the community we believe can benefit from education.

At this point where everybody's questioning the value of higher education, we need to take that step back, and assess our motivation and purpose.

For some, education is a right, and for others, it is about, “What do I get out of it?” When I talk to some of those policymakers, I point out that in 30 years, one out of two people paying into Social Security will be black or brown. So if for no other reason, you want to invest in these populations because you want somebody to be paying into Social Security. That's an enlightened self-interest. Maybe that’s too pragmatic, but it’s real. Ultimately, how do we inform and compel decisionmakers to take action and invest in the value of higher education.  
How do you get people to consider the value of higher education this way?
It has to be a combination of case-making which addresses the human enterprise concurrent with the societal element, and economics. It has to be done in a way that acknowledges the community of today isn’t the community of the past. 

It’s how you engage in society, the civic leadership, and the way you demonstrate the human- social benefits. We have to talk about these advantages in a way that is more engaging, and I think we have to talk about it as a public good more than we have. 
What needs to be done to support underrepresented populations in higher ed?
Value should also consider the equity element. For underrepresented communities, you don't necessarily have that multiplier effect that comes from generations of access to a quality education. 

We need to let go of the idea, “This is how I went to college; this is the way it should be.” We need to go back and start with the equity of preparation, of access, and of leveraged opportunities.

There’s an opportunity to think about value and work differently when you look at these populations. That's why we started Excelencia. Eighteen years ago, we were in so many policy conversations where we talked about student success, but we never talked about who the students were. 

And rather than seeing underrepresented populations, seeing Latinos from a deficit lens, which is what I continually heard, we ask institutions now to meet students where they are, and change the way we educate and inform underrepresented communities, so they can access the system that preceded them. We need to acknowledge the systemic inequities baked into higher education that aren’t conducive to the very communities that we are going to be relying on to help us going forward. 

Students certainly have a responsibility in their own education. But we also have to think about how institutions can meet students part of the way there. And that means reframing value in a way that is more inclusive of these communities that so far have not had equitable access and opportunity.