Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to join 500 senior higher ed leaders from around the country to discuss the state of higher education at Encoura’s 2022 Eduventures Summit in Boston.
This conversation couldn’t be more timely given the trends we’re seeing in higher education: declining student enrollment, increased interest in digital learning (with 73% of students surveyed expressing interest in taking online courses in the future), and the ongoing challenge on the minds of more students and families of how to weigh the cost and value of a postsecondary degree or credential.
Joined onstage by moderator James Wiley, Principal Analyst at Encoura, I was given the opportunity to reflect on what the Gates Foundation has learned over the course of more than 15 years of investing in higher education. My remarks focused on four key themes I think all leaders in higher ed need to grapple with: the importance of measuring and acting on postsecondary value; understanding and meeting the needs of today’s college students; committing to student-centered policies and practices and a culture of continuous improvement; and aligning K-12, higher education, and workforce data systems to help identify and close opportunity and equity gaps.
I shared that even though we have one of the best postsecondary systems in the world and despite the aspirations of students, our system is falling short of its potential to provide all students — especially students in low-income communities, Black and Latino students, and women who have historically faced higher obstacles to success — with credentials of labor market value that lead to equitable outcomes.
The Importance of Postsecondary Value
Our discussion began with the importance of institutions providing postsecondary value, a topic I have discussed before in a previous post. Through the foundation’s partnership with the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) and the subsequent launch of the Postsecondary Value Commission, the commission explored the question of value.
That work led to a measurement framework, a series of six thresholds (threshold 0 to threshold 5), to assess how much better off students are after attending college. This includes minimum economic return, earnings premium, earnings parity, economic mobility, economic security, and wealth parity. For example, threshold 0, the most basic threshold, means that students are earning at least as much as a high school graduate plus enough to recoup their total net cost of college within 10 years of graduating.
Of the 2,908 institutions that had sufficient data on costs and student earnings that the commission reviewed, 650 — or just over 22 percent — failed to even meet threshold 0 for the over 1.1 million students who graduated from those institutions.
Institutional leaders must know their numbers — in other words, they must know what return on investment their institutions are providing graduates — so they and policymakers can make informed decisions and smart investments that lead to equitable outcomes for students.
Understanding the Needs of Today’s College Students
Our conversation then centered on understanding the needs of today’s college students. I shared the story of Aleah Medina (pictured here), a former student at Riverside City College in California, to exemplify this issue. Aleah’s story is one of many California student stories organized by our partner, Open Campus, into a collection called Postcards from the College Journey.
Aleah became overwhelmed by the steps for applying to college and overwhelmed once she got into Riverside, juggling courses while working at her parents’ restaurant where she had been helping out since she was five. She dropped out at the age of 21.
Although Aleah later went back to college and finished her degree, her story speaks to the changing demographics and needs of today’s college students who are likely to be financially independent, working part- or full-time, and raising children. Institutions must tailor supports to address the needs of today’s students and commit to continually going back to their data to see if changes are having their intended impact or if new approaches are needed.
Shifting to Student-Centered Policies and Practices
The dialogue expanded to institutional transformation. We believe that transformation is where innovation, data and information, and policy come together to promote – and deliver – equitable student success. The good news is that colleges and universities recognize this, with 71% of institutional presidents surveyed saying their institutions must fundamentally change.
As part of institutional transformation, we talked about developmental education (dev ed) reform and how those changes are improving student outcomes. Traditional developmental education policies and practices place about half of students attending two-year colleges and a third of students attending four-year colleges in precollege, non-credit English and math courses. Research shows that traditional dev ed policies and practices grossly underestimate students’ abilities, and students in these programs use most of their financial aid before getting to credit-bearing courses.
But that’s beginning to change. Two exemplars in dev ed reform include the University System of Georgia, which implemented co-requisite courses for English and math, placing students in credit-bearing courses with supplemental support. As a result, they have doubled the percentage of students completing introductory courses, regardless of race. The other example is the City University of New York where students taking co-requisite Statistics are 50% more likely to graduate than students taking remedial Algebra. These are examples from which other colleges and universities can and should learn.
Aligning K-12, Higher Ed, and Workforce Data Systems
In closing, we discussed how the lack of alignment in the collecting, reporting, and use of student progress data across K-12, postsecondary, and the workforce allows equity and opportunity gaps to remain unaddressed.
At the foundation, we experienced an evolution in the way we look at data. We have created a Data Strategy that helps us look at our education and economic systems through the lens and experience of the student as they go through these systems. We’re now able to map the student journey and can identify key milestones and transitions where we can help students stay on the path to success – a strong start with high-quality Pre-K, the transition from eighth grade into high school, and the transition from high school to higher education, to name a few of the critical milestones.
The lack of alignment of K-12, higher education, and workforce data systems hampers efforts to serve all students, especially students of color and students from low-income backgrounds whose outcomes are obscured when data are not disaggregated by race, income, and other factors.
The 2022 Eduventures Summit created the opportunity to connect with institutional leaders and exchange ideas on how we can all work better together to improve our postsecondary system. I appreciated the thoughtful questions from the audience and although I am encouraged by the bright spots we’re seeing in some areas, there is still much more work to be done to ensure our system is working to provide equitable outcomes for all students.