In Higher Ed, Value Matters Too
Over the last decade, the conversation in higher education has centered around one theme and one theme only: reducing the costs associated with going to college. From a drumbeat of headlines bemoaning student loan debt for keeping students from living their lives, to a chorus of proposals for free college on the Left, conventional wisdom would have you believe that college affordability is all that is needed to fix higher ed.
To be fair, this diagnosis of the problem does have some basis in reality. Today, the average tuition and fee price at colleges is two to three times as high as it was in 1987 and approximately 8 million Americans are in default on their student loans. There’s no question that reducing these financial burdens must be part of any serious higher education reform conversation.
But it can’t be the only part — which is where 2017 comes in.
Though it might not have garnered as many headlines as President Trump’s tweets, 2017 saw an evolution in the way that policy wonks, policymakers, and the press talk about the problems facing higher education — and the solutions necessary to fix them. Over the last year, the conversation in higher education has made a marked shift away from focusing solely on costs towards emphasizing value.
This is perhaps because it is now becoming clear that talking about cost in a vacuum is insufficient for addressing some of the real challenges facing higher education today — especially middling completion rates, equity gaps, and a disconnect between higher education and the workforce pipeline. Accordingly, in 2017 there was a newfound and urgent sense that we must look more carefully at policies that expand transparency and accountability so that we have a better sense of how well our higher education system is serving students, and taxpayers. Only then can they decide whether it’s worth shelling out huge checks in hopes of investing in a better future.
Take, for example, one of the most well-publicized higher education studies to emerge earlier this past year: Raj Chetty’s Mobility Report Cards. As part of his broader Equality of Opportunity Project, Chetty and his colleagues evaluated longitudinal data from 30 million students and their families to track which colleges have the highest mobility rates for their students. This research played a key role in shifting the public conversation about how to evaluate schools away from elite factors such as SAT scores and academic selectivity towards considering whether and how these institutions are improving the economic futures of the students they serve.
Another dominant theme from 2017 — in the work of think tanks and advocacy groups as well as discussions on the Hill — was improving student outcomes. The concept of risk-sharing, for example, emerged as a possible way to ensure colleges have some “skin-in-the-game” when it comes to how well their students perform. This included the release of eight cross-party risk-sharing proposals from academics and higher education experts as well as bipartisan legislation aimed at making institutions ineligible to receive federal student aid if fewer than 15 percent of their students are able to repay their loans.
There was also a huge push in 2017 to increase transparency in outcomes so that the public has a full picture of how well institutions are preparing students for the 21st century workforce. For instance, the Department of Education made completion rate data for part-time students and Pell Grant recipients available for the very first time. Chairwoman Foxx’s rewrite of the Higher Education Act also made strides in acknowledging the need for more data by codifying program-level debt and earnings metrics for students receiving federal aid.
But while these are important steps, they still leave our data system incomplete. This is why we also saw significant progress in overturning the federal ban on student-level data through the introduction of the College Transparency Act — a bill that boasted co-sponsors as disparate as Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and garnered the support of over 100 organizations from across the political spectrum. Helping students see where to get more value from our higher education system has emerged as a rare unifying point in a year of intense polarization.
This renewed spotlight on value goes beyond the Beltway, with state and local outlets joining in to examine the need for improved student outcomes in higher education. This includes the San Antonio Express calling out local colleges for failing to graduate their students; The Oregonian urging state legislators to maintain rigorous college completion goals; and the Denver Post, among others, urging the Trump administration to keep regulations in place that hold colleges accountable for abysmal outcomes that make students worse off than when they enrolled. From coast to coast, editorial boards have made clear that creating a postsecondary higher education system worthy of the 21st century requires us to think bigger than cost-lowering solutions. Both students and taxpayers must ask not only about costs, but also about value.
Shifting the conversation from cost to value is only a start; it will take hard work to ensure that more students who start college finish with the meaningful degrees they need to get good jobs and pay back their student loans. As we begin 2018, we must work together to tackle the legitimate cost concerns while also dealing head on with the serious quality shortcomings in higher education. Only then can we hope to build a higher education system that is both affordable and worthy of the significant investment that students, families, and taxpayers choose to make.
Tamara Hiler is a senior policy advisor and higher education campaign manager at Third Way.