The value of postsecondary education is a hot topic in higher education circles today. But while everyone is talking about it, most are coming at it from very different perspectives. It reminds me of a potluck dinner without guidance — everyone brings a great contribution but it’s going to take a bit of creativity and open-mindedness to see how it all fits together.
People understandably want to know what a credential will buy them in the workplace, and the Institute for Higher Education Policy and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, recently launched the Commission on the Value of Postsecondary Education to help answer that question. With a team of experts, they’re examining what we currently know and what we are learning about the economic value of postsecondary education.
Others, including the Gates Foundation and HCM Strategists, strongly affirm the value of a postsecondary education but are putting the emphasis on how best to communicate the message and whom to communicate it to. Is it through a coordinated network of organizations relying on student voices? Do we need to convince policymakers about the value of postsecondary education? Students? Parents? Higher education leaders? Arguably most of those folks already are true believers, and the hard work undoubtedly is convincing those who are not engaged in postsecondary education that they should be.
I recently participated in a thought-provoking summer summit held by the American Council on Education in Portland, Ore., where institutional leaders talked about how market trends influence institutional decision making. This was yet another way of thinking about the value of higher education. For them, it is about connecting with the workforce needs of their communities and their states and making wise institutional decisions that result in student success.
There are certainly other approaches that policymakers and experts are taking to assess the value of postsecondary education. A major challenge, and perhaps an opportunity, is that as leaders in postsecondary education, we haven’t agreed on what we mean. We used to just assume there was value (even if not everyone could access it) and for the most part, so did everyone else. Or so we thought. The conversations that are happening now are important and necessary, particularly in the context of legitimate concerns around affordability and employability. We need to engage in this dialogue, confront our challenges, and find productive ways to move forward so that we can prepare our students, and our potential students, for success in the workplace and in society. It’s for everyone’s benefit.