Postsecondary Success Notes | May 2023

What if all college degrees were valuable?
A student in cap and gown and Bill Gates smile and high-five each other at NAU Commencement


This is my official plug to add a 5th season to the calendar: commencement season.

It has undoubtedly become one of my favorite times of year because it’s filled with joy, hope, pride, and celebration. Celebration of the awesome achievement of completing one’s studies, and commencement of the next chapter of life, one with a degree in hand. And a celebration of how far we’ve come as a country in ensuring more students get to and through college.

It is also time for reflection. Approximately 3 million undergraduate degrees are conferred within the United States annually. But how many of those degrees will make sure students are better off than before they started college? How many of those degrees were awarded by institutions working to guarantee all students they enroll see a return on their investment? And how do different communities define the value of a degree?

The Gates Foundation has been exploring the answers to these tough questions alongside university leaders, students, researchers, policymakers, and advocates since 2019, when we launched the Postsecondary Value Commission. This work has been insightful and inspiring, and it’s provided a framework through which we can clearly define and measure postsecondary value and celebrate the institutions and leaders working tirelessly to make equitable value non-negotiable.

One of those institutions is Northern Arizona University (NAU), a campus I’ve had the pleasure of visiting multiple times this year and where our co-chair Bill Gates offered a commencement address earlier this month. So, why NAU? Because this is an institution that doesn’t just understand the value of a college degree, it’s their top priority and goal, thanks to President José Luis Cruz Rivera and his team. NAU has a history of serving as an engine of social mobility for its students, half of whom are people of color, first-generation, and come from low-income families. Under Cruz Rivera’s leadership, NAU has launched and continues to roll out impressive reforms that will accelerate their goal of providing equitable postsecondary value for their students.

To learn more about the work happening at NAU, I urge you to read Bill’s blog post, listen to the Make Me Care About… College podcast episode with President Cruz Rivera, and watch this video with NAU graduating senior Jessica Gonzalez highlighting how a focus on college value has changed the trajectory of her life and that of her family.

I hope you all take a moment to celebrate and reflect on all we’ve collectively accomplished in moving the needle on college value this year. And then dive back in because until we no longer need to ask, “what if college degrees were all valuable?,” there’s more work to be done.


Patrick Methvin

Patrick Methvin

Director, Postsecondary Success

Quick Takes

Colleges have the power to transform lives

Over the course of the last decade, countless news articles have been published questioning whether college is worth it. And while all degrees aren’t created equal, we know that high-quality, valuable ones are without question worth it, and have the power to transform lives. This belief has become the mission and focus of the Coalition of Life Transformative Education, started by a group of higher education leaders committed to human and workforce development for all their students. To learn more about this effort, listen to the latest episode of Inside Higher Ed’s The Key podcast.

Survey results show knowledge gaps prevent vulnerable borrowers from seeing their debt relieved

All too often, information disparities prevent students of color from reaping the full benefits of higher ed when compared to their white peers. The Department of Education’s newly proposed income-driven repayment (IDR) plan has the potential to provide long-term relief to borrowers struggling to repay their student loan debt, but according to the latest brief from New America, more than 40 percent of low-income borrowers aren’t familiar with IDR – even though they are most likely to benefit from the plan. Explore their recommendations for the effective implementation of federal student aid programs.

Ohio’s public universities are contributing to the state’s economy in a big way

When a student crosses the finish line with a degree in hand, it creates a ripple effect positively impacting the student’s family, community, local economy, and society writ large. The benefits of a valuable postsecondary education are far-reaching, which is why college completion matters. According to a new study, Ohio’s public universities brought in nearly $69 billion to the state’s economy in the last fiscal year, and the largest return on investment in the amount of $59 billion came from alumni currently employed in more than half a million jobs in the state.