Help college students get their money's worth

A college degree is the most important vehicle for economic success in our country. Two-thirds of all U.S. jobs will require a postsecondary education by 2020, up from 28 percent in 1973. And college graduates take home, on average, 60 percent higher annual earnings than their high school graduate counterparts, which adds up to about $830,000 more income over a lifetime.

Yet while the stakes of getting a degree have never been higher, we have a quality crisis in our country’s higher education system. We can now say that 8 in 10 students graduate from high school, but the good news ends there. Two in 10 will fail to enroll in college. And of the 6 in 10 who do enroll, only half will earn a four-year degree, with another 1 in 10 earning a degree from a two-year institution. That means 60 percent of students will be left out in the cold in our new economy. And even for those who do make it through college, too many are not equipped with the skills they need to be workforce-ready.

One study found that 45 percent of students demonstrated no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing during their first two years in college, and 36 percent failed to demonstrate any meaningful gains at all over the four years.

Another set of research revealed that one-third of college graduates couldn’t even complete basic numerical or literary tasks like balancing a checkbook or understanding narrative texts such as newspaper articles.

So while many federal, state, and local leaders have been putting forth plans to reduce the cost of college, we believe they must ask an even more fundamental question: How can we make sure students are getting their money’s worth?

First, we should increase transparency so parents and students can make better-informed choices about where to make their college investment. The Department of Education took a huge step forward in this area earlier this year through the release of its new College Scorecard, which gives families access to completion rates, anticipated levels of student debt, and projected earnings of graduates at colleges across the country.

However, often the variation between different programs or majors is even bigger than the difference between schools as a whole, and the nationwide scorecard only allows students and parents to see results at the institutional level. To address this problem, the state of Virginia has gone a step further and linked graduates’ earnings data to specific programs from schools within their state. This type of system could be replicated at the state level here in Michigan and across the country to equip parents and students to spend their college investment wisely.

Second, we must reprioritize teaching and learning at the college level. Today, the federal government spends less than one-tenth of one percent of its huge higher education budget on teacher quality, instead prioritizing most of its investment on research. While research is surely important, much more attention should be paid to ensuring that our students are receiving the high-quality instruction for which they ostensibly pay. States like Michigan can and should make a commitment to investing in programs that recognize and reward excellent teaching in higher education, as well as experimenting with ways to assess whether or not students are actually learning the critical skills they need from their professors.

Lastly, we must create financial incentives that prompt institutions to improve the value they provide — not just penalize the very worst performers. The federal government spends $126 billion dollars annually in student aid, and Michigan alone spends more than $90 million state tax dollars each year. Yet neither state nor federal policy evaluates the effectiveness of that investment or rewards institutions that are delivering great results for the students they serve.

Instead, financial support from the federal and state level should be used to force schools to deliver on the promises they make by increasing completion rates, investing in innovative ways to improve instruction, and providing clear and coherent data about how students who attend their school fare.

Simply making college more affordable will not fix the quality crisis we face. We must attack it head on and realign the state and federal resources we invest in higher education toward one goal: creating a system where every student who enrolls in a two or four year program obtains the degree needed to succeed in our economy and learns the skills needed to navigate the modern workforce.

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Sat, 10/31/2015 - 4:54pm
It isn't about transparency; it has to do with what to look for. Whether it is parents who have not received their high school diploma, parents who have a college degree, parents that have worked in a low knowledge base job, parents who have jobs that require a college degree, high [certified] skilled jobs, to parents who have successful government jobs, etc. if they don’t know what to expect or look for all the information won’t help. It has to do with what are the desired outcomes from education? Is it about jobs, a minimum knowledge base, a imagination/creativity based? Is it about wealth [accumulation], it about security, is it about intellectual challenge, is it about the work environment? People need help in determining what they expect/desire from the education. As an example, if it is about knowledge then people should be made aware of school accreditations, about the various schools or programs with in a college/university, special program. People need help in developing what they want as the outcomes in a general way before they can be expect to determine what school will be appropriate. Parents also need to develop a set of core questions to discuss with their children, they need to learn how to listen? The students need to understand that they do some work to find out about the possible activites/jobs that different training programs can lead to and how people achieve them. The there is the whole entrepreneurial path, and what they may involve and what are core things that will help on that path. People can see all they want about the school, but if they don't know the questions to ask, how to listen, and how to discuss the application of all that information as it relates to their lives nothing changes. If you want to help students and their parents start with the questions they should be asking themselves before we invest in the transparency of the schools. We have transparency of various levels of government [just ask them], but without knowing the right questions to ask nothing changes. Parents and students need to start with what their desires and expectations are before they worry about transparency of post secondary education institutions.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 11/01/2015 - 10:23am
We have seen what a great job the government/politicians have done with k-12 accountability, so let's now go after colleges and universities? Yeah right. Why are do many students drop out? So let's make it easier for them to pass. Easy enough. "[W]e must reprioritize teaching and learning at the college level." Ok, but the next sentence begins with government not spending enough on teacher quality. So are we going to follow the k-12 formulas for measuring teacher quality? I don't think so. Do us a favor and leave government/politicians out of education. They have already done enough damage in the last 12 years beginning with No Child Left Behind. Higher education in America didn't become the place people come to from all over the world because of government intervention (besides the post-WWII GI bill). If you policy wonks/politicians want to do something about higher education, try leveling the playing field for low income students and minorities. Increase the likelihood that they are able to succeed when they get to college.
Sun, 11/01/2015 - 11:35pm
Chuck, It isn't about leveling the playing field because that will never happen, everyone is unique so ‘level’ will be different for eachmaking it impossible to satisfy everyone's ‘level’. There are to keys to individual success, opportunity and desire to take advantage of the opportunity. There are too many experiences that show the ‘quality’ differences in schools aren’t as important [there are failures and successes sitting side by side in classrooms]. What matters are that the students are exposed to learning, how to learn, and that they can learn on their own. The desire to learn is most important. It is the old cliché, ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.’ That desire is the reason kids with all the things people claim will give them success fail, and why kids that have all the barriers set against them will succeed. The issue of transparency, it matters little if the kids and parents don’t have a reason to use it. In this article it is an answer that the educational wonks have, but matters not at all to the students.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 11/01/2015 - 10:25am
Correction: Why do so many students drop out.? Sorry.
Charles Richards
Sun, 11/01/2015 - 3:54pm
This article is not well done. The authors say, "A college degree is the most important vehicle for economic success in our country. Two-thirds of all U.S. jobs will require a postsecondary education by 2020, up from 28 percent in 1973." A college degree does not necessarily equal all postsecondary education., which could be learning a skill that does not require a college degree. It would have been helpful if the authors had broken out the jobs that require a college degree separately. Thus, their statement "That means 60 percent of students will be left out in the cold in our new economy." is unwarranted and unsupported. They lament that far too many college graduates derive little or no benefit from their college experience, but then place all the blame on the institutions. Why then, did the other students derive considerable benefits? Isn't it possible that the difference lies in the variation between students? Or are institutions, and the community at large, responsible for all failures? The authors make much of the Department of Educations' College Scoreboard, but failed to mention that a group cited by the Economist magazine had already evaluated nearly every college and program in the country. That group made information about educational value for money spent readily available. Or is only government information of value? In any event, determining what institutions and programs are of value is not rocket science.
Greg Gamalski
Mon, 11/02/2015 - 11:40am
I strongly disagree with the authors on the basic premises of their article. They state the goal as "creating a system where every student who enrolls in a two or four year program obtains the degree needed to succeed in our economy and learns the skills needed to navigate the modern workforce." The real purposes of secondary and higher education is to create a well-rounded individuals and citizens capable of participating intelligently in our Democracy. It's not a training program and it's not a vocational school. The goal of education should be, and must remain, to create a well-informed citizenry that is articulate, rational, and competent to think about the world and its affairs and their personal lives. Our educational system is not merely the minor leagues for the pros. Life is not solely about work. Our Democracy depends on more than a complacent work force skilled only in the requirements of demanded by Moloch and Ba’al, the Golden Calf, and symbols of our out of control worship of Randian capitalism. Our education system and discussion of it has been reduced to a ridiculous focus on creating a regimented submissive and complacent workforce who have neither the time, energy, nor the thinking skills to consider the issue of democracy and life and one’s place within it. I am sure folk will soon “set me straight” explaining survival, eating and shelter must come first before such fussiness, as if our rights and liberties and body politic are luxuries and not necessities. However Women and Men are meant for higher things. If grubbing for shelter and food, which need not be as hard as we make it for ourselves in a society as rich and capable as ours, is the sole point we might as well be simple insects like the bees, which live contented lives but know nothing about Life, Goodness, Morality, or Citizenship. Furthermore, business should not expect that our Democracy and educational system exist just to provide them with the equivalent of trained drones to who can be immediately plugged into the work force. Businesses should train the work force for business, at least if businesses wish to be in business. Why is it Society’s job to subsidize business in that regard? And worse yet why has it become the sole purpose of education? Is that to be the measure of our educational system and society, to train technically apt cogs for the machine and drones for hives? I don’t think the Framers viewed the purpose of our Democracy as a mere subsidiary devoted to work force development for Business. And I might add that if more businesses were prepared to pay workers what they are worth they might very well find there as are many skilled workers as they need. My guess is Einstein and Madam Curie and their ilks are smart enough to realize that they are worth more than 15.00 or 10.25 per hour for that matter. Our Democracy's sole function is to create a free, articulate, and informed in rational citizenry. It is not a vocational program serving solely Business.