Trending in higher ed: the value of college

How is value measured?

The value of a higher education has been long debated. Some traditional colleges and universities have prided themselves on not only preparing their graduates for a career but creating well-rounded individuals that contribute a great deal to society as a whole which is seen as a significant noneconomic return on a student’s postsecondary education.

While the noneconomic returns on a higher education can be significant, what it consistently comes down to though, is usually an equation of cost, debt, and pay after graduation—the economic returns.

Taking this economic measurement on the value of college a step further is a new national Commission on the Value of Postsecondary Education, made up of 30 members, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The purpose of the new commission is to scrutinize the value of postsecondary credentials and to offer recommendations on how value is defined and how to measure that value. Ultimately, colleges will be able to better evaluate how they are contributing to economic opportunity for students; students and their families will be able to more effectively consider what and where to study; and policymakers will be able to better measure the public’s return on investment in higher education.

In an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, it notes that Gates officials say it will be more extensive than the current College Scorecard, introduced as a way to help increase transparency in higher education and other existing measures.

The article also notes that the program-level data will include graduate’s median earnings, debt levels, and loan repayments focusing on whether the price of certain programs of study is economically worth it to students.

Preliminary research shows that Americans see the importance of a higher education but that cost and affordability are leading to doubts. The research also shows that upward economic mobility from the bottom 20% income level to the top 40% is three times higher for those with a college education.

USHE’s higher education value

As part of the Board of Regents’ strategic initiatives, Access and Affordability and Workforce and Research are two pillars in measuring the success of Utah System of Higher Education institutions and addressing the value of their degrees.

The Board has built out a list of system metrics with goals addressing these pillars including:

  • The average tuition and fees for all public four-year universities in Utah should not exceed 10% of the state’s median household income for the corresponding year.
  • USHE will work toward increasing the annual number of degrees and certificates granted in 5-Star Occupation related programs by at least 3% each year.
  • USHE will work toward increasing the percentage of degrees and certificates granted in 5-Star Occupation related programs to 30 percent of all awards by 2025.

Goal progress will be reported each year in the USHE Annual Report.

In a 2018 USHE study, research shows that students who earned a one-year certificate in Utah saw their tuition investment of $3,568 (SLCC) increase their wage return by 42%, or $6,000 in one year. 24,472 students who graduated from Utah’s public colleges and universities in 2016 collectively earned an estimated $470 million more in increased wages in their first year of employment after graduation. Moreover, individuals who earned a bachelor’s degree (almost half of all 2016 Utah graduates) earned 85% more than those who didn’t finish high school. After five years, wages for those with a bachelor’s degree will further increase an estimated 46% above their 1st-year earnings.

Additionally, UtahFutures will soon introduce a new tool called Launch My Career which will allow users to compare schools, majors, and careers to see the return on investment projections for their education in Utah.


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Trisha Dugovic
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