Equitable Value: Higher education's next movement

Patrick Methvin

Today the Postsecondary Value Commission released its final report and action agenda, which caps two years of work to provide new answers to the question “What is college worth?” We at the foundation are proud to support this work and are grateful to the commission members and our partners at the Institute for Higher Education Policy for their leadership on this important issue.

For us, this is more than just the release of a report. It represents an important step forward in the evolving movement to transform our higher education system to make it more student-centered and deliver on the promise of equitable opportunity. And that opportunity has to include equitable value – putting students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, income, or gender, on the path to a better living and a better life.

The move to focusing on equitable value builds on decades of progress and lessons learned.

In the 20th Century, the goal for higher education was access. We saw this in the GI Bill and the Higher Education Act of 1965. The goal was opening the doors to higher education to more Americans, but without the expectation that all could – or should – succeed in their efforts.

As the 21st Century got underway, the focus expanded to completion, spurred on by the work of the Spellings Commission and the movement that unfolded, supported by foundations and the efforts of many colleges and universities and partners. The saying of “look to your left, look to your right…one (or two) of you won’t be here next semester” gave way to attainment goals, best practices and “game changers.”

Now we’re nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st Century and we’ve learned some lessons that set the stage for what’s next:

  1. The initial focus on completion was light on equity. Yes, we’ve made gains in completion over the past decade or so, but equitable completion is still the exception and not the rule. The good news is that institutions like Sinclair Community College, Georgia State University and the University of California, Riverside have shown us that it CAN be done, and our work on initiatives such as Completion by Design and the Frontier Set demonstrates that a number of other colleges and universities are well on their way. The lesson: equitable completion is attainable, but it requires a much greater focus on race in our student success efforts.
  2. Completion alone is not enough. A credential is only as good as the opportunity it provides. Credit to our colleagues in the funder world (e.g. Strada) for recognizing this and framing initiatives like Completion with a Purpose and research efforts unpacking what value means for today’s students.

We at the foundation are drawing on these lessons to help build a movement for equitable value, which we view as the necessary evolution of the access and completion movements.

The commission’s findings clearly underscore the need for an equitable value movement in higher education:

  • Students who complete degrees see vastly better economic outcomes than students who don’t. We’ve known that from the data about who got jobs in the recovery following the Great Recession, as well as who were the first to lose jobs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • And while many colleges and universities see upward economic mobility for their students and graduates, too many do not. At hundreds of institutions, students do not see a minimum economic return – earnings at or above those of high school graduates in the same region, plus net price paid for a degree – ten years after college.
  • But have we had a national dialogue about the fact that White non-completers see comparable outcomes to non-white completers 15 years out? And that students who complete the same degree see vastly different economic outcomes – according to their race or ethnicity?

This should not be the case in 2021.

That is why the commission is proposing an action agenda, one that will not fix every problem, but one that will put more students – especially Black, Latino, Indigenous, and underrepresented Asian American/Pacific Islander students and students from low-income backgrounds – on the path to a credential that leads to a better living and a better life. The action agenda includes things like scaling clear academic pathways, focusing financial resources on students and institutions with the greatest need (like community and technical colleges), and creating stronger connections between educational institutions and employers.

As a foundation, we will pick up where the commission leaves off by supporting colleges and universities and partners committed to gathering and using better data about the value of education after high school, and more importantly, taking action to improve value and make it more equitable. And we will be bringing an “equitable value lens” to our grant-making, asking, “How does this grant contribute to efforts to advance equitable value?”

I hope that you will join us in helping to build a movement for equitable value. The evidence is here. The ideas are here. All we need now is the will.