3 ways to combat higher ed skepticism

There are numerous ways to calculate the value of a college education.

There’s the generational impact of education, which drives socioeconomic development for communities. There’s also the value of an educated citizenry, which can be trusted to make good decisions in a democracy.

But as the cost of postsecondary education continues to skyrocket—forcing folks to take out loans and go into debt to achieve it—the value calculation becomes simpler. Today, people primarily assess the value of a college education by its ROI.

The Skepticism is Obvious

The fact is, many Americans struggle to calculate the value of their college investment.

According to the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, only 60 percent of college graduates earn more than those with only a high school diploma within a decade of graduating. What’s more, at more than 30 percent of all colleges, fewer than half the graduates who leave the institution earn more than high school graduates after 10 years.

As a result, the American public is highly skeptical of the value of a college education. A new study from Public Agenda found that more than half of Americans believe a college education to be a questionable investment due to high loans and limited job opportunities.

Among young adults without degrees, 70 percent of respondents question the value of a college investment. Worryingly, 49 percent of young adults who earned a postsecondary degree are skeptical of the investment they already made.

The skepticism of the value of a college education also shows in completion rates. The graduation rate is currently at 64 percent at universities, and approximately 34 percent at community colleges according to the NCES.

There is no greater threat to a society than skepticism of education—especially as we shift to a knowledge economy. The Lumina Foundation estimates that America needs 60 percent of its adults to earn a postsecondary credential to keep the economy healthy, but we’re only at 51.9 percent.

Here are three ways modern college leaders can work to address the skepticism of today’s students.

a1. Turn the Tide by Making Labor Market Data Available

The first—and most obvious—step that colleges and universities can take to address learner skepticism is to bring labor market data to the forefront.

Students shouldn’t be trying to guess what kinds of career pathways a college education might lead them toward. Similarly, they shouldn’t be asked to rely on assurances from institutional staff that a credential will lead to their success.

Instead, a modern postsecondary institution should share relevant labor market data, geolocated to their region, to show prospective students where a college education might take them, what kinds of salaries are available for those jobs, and how many jobs are actually available.

Students should be able to find programs based on their career aspirations, or compare different offerings based on the career direction it might take them. And they should have clarity into how much they’re likely to spend—and how much they’re likely to make upon completion.

For what it’s worth, this is the exact data that today’s teenagers look for when choosing a college pathway.

a2. Focus on Learners and Invest in their Success

Beyond clarifying career opportunities—which in and of itself should provide motivation to earn a credential—higher education institutions need to improve retention and completion.

This means focusing on the levers that will improve the learner experience and encourage them to persist through their programs.

One mechanism to drive this is by guiding learners toward relevant co-curricular programming. Valdosta State University took an active role in leading students—especially those who are under-performing—to co-curricular activities in an effort to improve retention… and it worked! They found that retention increased retention to 95 percent when students attend at least 10 events per semester.

Being more meaningful in working with students and providing them opportunities to engage their interests both inside and outside the classroom establishes pathways that support their success.

a3. Offer Alternative and Flexible Programming

Finally, being “educated” doesn’t rely on earning a degree. The Lumina Foundation’s measurement of success looks at completion of both degrees and high-quality, non-degree credentials. This can include assessment-based certificates, industry certifications, and competency badges.

The benefit of these programs is that they’re often highly outcome-oriented, specifically geared toward a career path, and are much shorter than full-scale degree offerings. That means students can immediately see their value and complete the offering quickly.

Colleges and universities that are looking to engage a wider pool of learners and provide them immediate and recognizable value should explore offering or scaling their alternative credential efforts.

Take the Skepticism Seriously

Many higher education leaders fall into the trap of not taking students’ skepticism seriously. It can be exhausting to constantly face this kind of criticism … but it’s essential not to dismiss these kinds of concerns.

The modern learner is juggling multiple priorities and has seen previous generations go into decades of debt to earn their degrees. What’s more, the data provides some justification to their concerns. And with so many alternative providers entering the market, offering upskilling and reskilling fast-tracks to in-demand jobs, there are more options for learners than ever before.

It’s essential that we do what we can as an industry to directly address the concerns learners raise when considering a postsecondary pathway.

By showing students that the college has flexible options for them, that those options will lead to a good job, and that the college will support them on the way, we can be sure to deliver on the mission of supporting socioeconomic mobility and supporting the educated citizenry.

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Laura Ascione

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