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It’s time we understood the value of college

Last updated: 08-11-2019

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It’s time we understood the value of college

When I was president of Cal State Fullerton, more than half of our 40,000 students were the first in their families to go to college. Watching them graduate each spring, I saw not just rosy hopes for the future, but lives already transformed, the trajectories of entire families changed.

Or I could tell you my own story — how my parents, factory workers in Brooklyn, taught my six brothers and sisters and me that we needed the education that they never had received; how, after my father died, my mother, a poor and single Latina, somehow made it possible for me to go to college, which put me on my life’s course.

Increasingly, though, those stories of the value of a college education are being drowned out by a chorus of concerns about the cost.

Studies showing the long-term return on college investment — especially for the disadvantaged — are compelling. But in the moment, those bits of data can pale against the idea of taking on $30,000 in loans without a certain means of paying them off.

In short, the long-held belief that higher education is the key to social mobility in the U.S. is no longer enough. We need to measure it, understand it, and develop a common way to talk about it. Those of us who know the value of higher education owe the American people that kind of shared data and rigorous argument. And we owe it to the future generations whose fate is being decided by choices that our nation is making today.

This growing conviction has led to the creation of the Commission on the Value of Postsecondary Education, a new initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that I have agreed to co-chair. The Postsecondary Value Commission, announced in May, has brought together a diverse and highly qualified group of 30 experts from around the nation, including higher education leaders, researchers, business and nonprofit leaders, advocates, and students, for a first-of-its-kind effort to answer the question: Is college worth it?

Specifically, this commission will tap the best minds in the nation to:

We aim to dig deep into what college graduates earn versus non-graduates, the ability of graduates to repay their debts, and graduates’ long-term economic mobility. We must also examine nonfinancial outcomes, such as long-term health, patterns of civic engagement (such as voting), and more.

We will break out the framework that we develop by a range of academic programs too, to explore where certain types of value in higher education result. We also will tease apart how earning a college degree affects low-income families, first-generation students, adult students, and students of color. And we will make all this information publicly available and easily accessible.

Our goal in part is to help leaders at colleges and universities make programmatic and institutional decisions that best serve their students. Our work should also help policymakers in their deliberations — and, by better informing the electorate, help nudge our leaders toward better decisions about using our public resources.

But most importantly, the commission aims to give potential students and their families tools unlike any other for making some of the most critical decisions of their lives — a choice now clouded by a noisy welter of disjointed, sometimes baffling, information.

My parents often repeated a saying to me that, translated to English, states, “The only inheritance a poor family leaves its children is a good education.”

It is time for us, as a nation, to use the research and critical thinking skills of higher education to examine, discover and communicate exactly what that inheritance is, and to ensure that we pass that precious gift along to future generations.


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