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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Helping Consumers Find Value in Higher Education

May 01, 2013

For generations, America’s colleges and universities provided a path for social mobility, educated our citizenry, and were an engine driving our nation’s economic development. It’s harder to say those things today. We no longer produce enough college graduates to fuel a robust workforce, and we are failing short on America’s promise of economic opportunity for all.

A degree beyond high school is essential for young people to succeed in the global economy and pursue their dreams. Unfortunately, too many postsecondary programs don’t deliver the value that students and families want and need. College costs too much. Most degree programs are designed for full-time students, even though 75 percent of students today are “non-traditional.” Too many students never finish, ending up with debt but no degree. For those that do graduate, too many are unprepared for the workplace.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, our Postsecondary Success strategy encourages innovation in higher education institutions to deliver the best educational value to as many students as possible. We invest in programs and strategies that help give more students the best, most affordable, personalized education that leads to a degree and a sustaining career. And part of that includes improved access to information about institutions’ performance.

It’s that last part that is catching fire these days. The online White House “College Scorecard” makes it easier for prospective students to pick the right college program for them, and to learn about a college’s affordability and value. Many states are also developing college cost tools, like Colorado’s SLOPE (Student Loans Over Projected Earnings) calculator. And last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education unveiled a new website that offers even more information to help make smarter choices about college.

In the way that the websites Zillow and Redfin changed the way people research, analyze and purchase a home, we hope this new site will transform the college decision-making process. That’s why we support it.

Think of it this way: lots of websites provide car shoppers with information on automobiles – features, models, fuel efficiency and warranties – but smart consumers go deeper. They examine a model’s recall history, road-test score, crash rating, and comments from owners to better understand a car’s quality and value for the price, from the perspective of other owners.

A student’s investment in college is one of the biggest and most important decisions they will make. They should know whether the college they’re considering graduates most of its students on time. They should understand how often students transfer away from that college (and whether other institutions accept the credits). They should know how often graduates get good jobs. Given that the cost of a college education has increased more than 42 percent since 2001 and that our national student loan debt is approaching $1 trillion, it’s in everyone’s best interest to help make college decisions well-informed decisions. There are lots of websites out there that focus on “Can I get into this or that college.”  There are few that get to true quality and value – “Will I succeed at that college, and is it worth it?” That’s what we need for higher education.

This is especially true for low-income and first-generation college students, who often have few resources and little expertise on how to determine which college is right for them and which one will provide them the best value. I believe it is crucial for the higher education community to begin providing students with clear, accurate information that answers these basic questions.

Of course, measures of graduates’ potential earnings get at only one aspect of the value of a college credential  We recognize that there are other measures that examine an institution’s effect on learning and academic growth, and we cheer those who are developing them. The Lumina Foundation, for example, supports the Degree Qualifications Profile, which is exploring how colleges and universities can use student assessment data to strengthen programs and undergraduate education. Lumina also supports the Tuning USA project – a faculty driven process to uncover what a student should know and be able to do in a given discipline.  The American Association of Colleges and Universities and the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities are also developing new ways to measure the quality of education that their members are providing. These efforts,  The Chronicle’s website, and the many other services like it that we hope and expect to emerge in the near future, will be essential in providing a more holistic picture of what makes a college education worth the investment.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that this is complex, messy, and often controversial work. The higher education community is engaged in a vigorous and too-often politicized, even divisive debate over how to measure its impact on students’ lives. As difficult as this is, it is necessary.

It’s necessary for the students to understand the important choices they are making. It’s necessary for colleges to remain relevant and accessible. It’s also necessary for taxpayers, who put billions of dollars into colleges, universities, and state and federal financial aid programs. And it’s necessary for employers, who struggle to find ways to fairly assess whether the graduates they hire have the knowledge and skills to succeed. Last, it’s necessary for our country. The U.S. has fallen to 13th in the world in college degree attainment, meaning millions of good paying jobs will go unfilled by American workers.

American businessman, entrepreneur and philanthropist Sy Syms was on to something when he said in his 1990s television commercials that “an educated consumer is our best customer.” With all due respect to Sy, I would say an educated education consumer is our best customer and our best hope for the future.

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