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.