Postsecondary Success Notes | June 2024

Imagining a value-centric graduation season
Graduates seated at a graduation ceremony inside an arena.

Colleagues –

In the last few weeks, a couple million students walked across the graduation stage to receive their bachelor’s degree diplomas. That number grows when you include community college graduates, students enrolled in online courses, certificate-granting programs, and other alternative pathways. The point is, it’s a lot of students. College completion matters, and the completion of a valuable, high-quality degree matters even more as students who graduate from college bring in $1 million more dollars over the course of their lifetimes.

This got me thinking about what the ripple effect would be of graduating more students and places that have demonstrated what that can look like. Cal State Fullerton (CSUF) came to mind. CSUF first caught my attention more than a decade ago under the leadership of then-President Millie Garcia (now Chancellor of California State University). Millie led CSUF to record improvements in graduation rates and built strong pathways for students from all backgrounds and she later became instrumental in the early days of the Value Commission. Let’s do some back-of-napkin math here:

  • CSUF completion rates have climbed exponentially over the last two decades, with 4-year completion rates increasing from 16% to 36% and 6-year completion rates growing from 52% to 71%.
  • In the fall of 2021, there were 14,500,000 undergrads across the nation.
  • At the national average, around 9,086,000 would graduate.
  • If all colleges stepped it up like CSUF, we’d see 12,166,000 graduates.
  • Now multiply that by the lifetime premium and that works out to (roughly) three million more grads and $3 TRILLION more dollars in improved lifetime earnings.

Our partners at Third Way asked a similar question a few years ago. They calculated the micro – and macroeconomic benefits of raising national college graduation rates to meet the national high school graduation rate (84% in 2019). You could conduct the same study using CSUF graduation rates as the North Star for other colleges and universities. The upshot from Third Way’s report: More graduates = increased annual wages for two-and four-year degree holders, reduced number of people in poverty, increased employment, and increased the amount of local, state, and federal tax revenue in the billions.

Getting more students across the finish line with a valuable degree that has a strong return on investment benefits students and society. While the national higher education field has developed multiple frameworks of metrics, thresholds, and consequences for ensuring institutions are accountable for their students' outcomes, few proposals have provided sufficient detail about how federal, state, or institutional policies can properly coordinate, fund, design, support, and oversee this improvement.

For that reason, I’m pleased to share we’ve partnered with Arnold Ventures, the Joyce Foundation, and the Strada Education Foundation on Policies to Improve Postsecondary Value: Request for Proposals. If you have ideas, or know folks in your network that do, please share the application with them.



Quick takes

  • If you read one thing this week, I hope it’s Olivia Sanchez’s latest newsletter for The Hechinger Report: Should financial aid be based on family wealth, rather than income alone? Olivia thoughtfully unpacks a new analysis from our partners at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) that shows family wealth – not just income – impacts myriad factors including whether a student’s parents have saved for college to whether they’ll enroll, take out loans, and how likely they are to graduate.

  • And if you watch one thing this week, I hope it’s the student-parent film series Raising Up produced by Three Frame Media. More than 1 in 5 college students are parents, and their responsibilities outside of the classroom greatly increase the barriers they face in pursuing and completing postsecondary education. The five-part docuseries features four student parents on their higher education journey and the episodes delve deep into issues of childcare, affordable housing, mental health, and workforce pathways.