It’s impossible to ignore the concerning trends emerging from recent research on postsecondary education.
A new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that four out of 10 recent college graduates are underemployed, meaning they’re working in jobs that don’t require their degree. One out of eight is working in a job that pays $25,000 a year or less—far from what most consider a good salary for a college graduate. Similarly, a new book from Michael Horn and Bob Moesta shows that students who take on debt but don’t finish are often left worse off than if they’d never gone to college.
The reality is that, no matter how you measure value, many people who complete postsecondary programs are not earning degrees of value. Wage outcome gaps across college programs are vast: Engineering majors go on to earn $3 million more than education majors over the course of their careers, for example, and averages that are sometimes reported to highlight earnings from college mask huge discrepancies among different colleges and programs within those colleges. The often touted million-dollar wage gain is simply not real for many college graduates.
New evidence is shedding light on the value of post-high school education from the consumer perspective. Data from the Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey of nearly 350,000 adults confirms that 20 per cent of college graduates, for example, disagreed with either the notion that their education was worth the cost or that it made them an attractive candidate to employers. For education consumers, it’s buyer beware: The education you pursue not only comes with a huge cost, but it also has massive implications for the future of your career and life with no guarantees.
The lack of consumer confidence in higher education represents a serious threat to opportunity for the millions of Americans who do not know where to turn to prepare themselves for a fast-changing workplace.
So how do we increase consumer confidence in higher education? We can start by arming consumers and learning providers with more and better information about the value of college programs — not just how much they can expect to earn after they graduate, but also how current and former students rate and value their experience. This fuller picture of value will both enable prospective students to make more informed choices about the education they pursue, and also help to learn providers to tailor their programs to meet consumers’ needs.
What do consumers value? Early evidence suggests that they value programs that are relevant, applied, and connected to a job. They also value high-quality advising, especially from work-based sources, though only one in five students have access to work-based sources of advising.
We are only beginning to understand how consumers perceive the value of education, but the potential benefits are far-reaching. Increasing consumer confidence in higher education would be a boon to an industry whose leaders are anxious about the future. But first, we need to develop the infrastructure, metrics, and tools necessary to build a postsecondary system that is transparent and accountable to consumers.
For consumers, educators, and employers, that’s a win-win-win.