Is higher education worth the time, effort and money? Millions of prospective students hope that stable jobs will be waiting for them upon graduation. But college doesn’t present the same economic opportunities for everyone, which is why Bill and Melinda Gates have set up a commission that will look at ways to calculate financial returns for students.
The Gates Foundation’s Commission on the Value of Postsecondary Education will aim to answer if college graduates are better off financially than their peers who only completed high school. They will also analyze which degrees offer the best increases in earnings. The Commission also considers graduates’ intangible, soft skills including critical thinking skills, presenting skills, better health outcomes and an increase in voter turnout.
Sue Desmond-Hellmann, the Commission’s CEO, told journalists: “Our focus is going to be on the economic returns of education after high school, while we recognize that there are real and significant non-economic returns. Equity will be at the center of the commission’s work. We want to help answer this question, ‘Is college worth it?’”
The main focus will be on students’ earnings and their outcomes relative to their peers who haven’t been to college. The Gates Commission’s goal is two-fold: analyze how much students earn post-graduation and how this affects their ability to pay off college loans and secondly, understand how a college degree offers opportunities for upward mobility. Desmond-Hellmann says: “Our foundation’s learned a lot in the last 10 years about getting more students to and through college, especially low income students and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults. But, we still don’t know enough about the benefits that education beyond high school brings.”
The existing system—the College Scorecard, introduced in 2015—looks at five areas: cost, graduation rate, employment rate, average amount borrowed and loan default rate. But it comes with its fair share of downsides. It doesn’t allow users to evaluate how a college fares in comparison to other colleges, stops users from reviewing threshold earnings data, and users can’t see whether or not a college education would provide them with a better income than their peers who stopped studying at high school.
Furthermore, a study led by Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith, policy research scientists at the College Board, finds that the scorecard only holds value for students who are well-off. It may influence affluent students’ application behaviors and makes no statistically significant difference in which school students choose to enrol in. In fact, the scorecard targets well-off students instead of those with lower incomes and fewer options for further studies.
But the scorecard is also an unnecessary puzzle for college hopefuls to navigate through, and Clare McCann, Deputy Director of Federal Higher Education Policy at New America, says that it lacks effectiveness because it’s unclear. “Updates to the site should come in the form of better, clearer information to consumers, not less transparency or harder-to-parse information,” McCann says.
The scorecard provides a broad, vague understanding of student salaries per institution and focuses only on students who receive federal student financial aid. The Commission will take a more nuanced approach in their analysis by looking at data from multiple disciplines at various schools. The scorecard’s findings on student salary post-graduation may also be biased: prospective students can anticipate that an engineer will earn more than an art history graduate. Instead, they’ll examine data on a program-to-program level.
An improved scorecard that shows direct benefits should help prospective students better understand and evaluate their available education options. The Commission believes that their findings will help to relocate state resources to make higher education more accessible. And although the commission can’t reduce the cost of a college education—or pay their loans—prospective students should soon have a much more comprehensive learning tool to rely on before making a huge financial and personal commitment.