What Really Matters in Measuring Higher Education Success?

Monday, May 17, 2021
Tiffani Williams
Associate Director

Who says postsecondary credentials are valuable? How do we know? A response to the recent Postsecondary Value Commission Report

Recent evidence tells us that there is a lot about postsecondary education that holds value — up to and including the credential. The Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Value Commission (PVC) found that there is varying economic value in certificates and degrees, depending on, primarily, where students go to college and what those institutions do to support them. There are so many rich findings in the Commission’s report — too many to summarize in this brief post — but what we know for sure is that, “what institutions do greatly affects the extent to which they provide value to the students who can most benefit from it.” (p. 76)

All of the PVC’s findings are well-supported by decades of scholarly research about how college affects students. In reviewing almost 2,000 scholarly research articles published between 2002 and 2013, authors of How College Affects Students: 21st Century Evidence that Higher Education Works summarize the impact of college on students ranging from their cognitive and moral development to educational attainment and career outcomes. And the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce has described just how much college really pays off. But the PVC brings those decades of research into the very real, complex world of higher education institutions and the multifaceted students that attend them.

College is the best route to the American dream, but the payoff is not equitable.

“College is the best route to the American dream:” it’s a well-worn phrase in the world of education, one that we both hear and preach all the time. While we (and the research) agree that postsecondary credentials are the optimal vehicle to long-term economic mobility and success, there are a few glaring exceptions. Students don’t always reap the same value from postsecondary as their peers and some are even left in worse economic circumstances than when they started.

The payoff of higher education isn’t the same for everyone. Students of color and those from low-income backgrounds, even with postsecondary credentials in hand, earn less over their lifetimes. And those are just the students who actually complete a degree or credential; there are many students that never make it to the “finish line,” and end up with high debt and lower income than their counterparts who do complete a postsecondary program.

The student journey comprises dozens of different experiences and decision points that shape their ultimate outcomes. 

Students’ decisions make all the difference in their postsecondary and, ultimately, longer-term career outcomes. Decisions about, for example, whether to pursue a degree or a non-degree credential, a two- or a four-year degree, a STEM field versus the liberal arts, and so many more, all play a role in shaping a students’ future. 

So why is it that we put so much emphasis on the “end” point for students and not: 1) the often inequitable journey of experiences that gets them there or 2) the variable payoff afterwards. 

College graduation is just the beginning. 

Students will navigate many career transitions after postsecondary education. There is an imperative for institutions to better position students for a lifetime of career success. You might ask, how? Higher education can find ways to better predict and create equitable value throughout the experience and beyond. 

Predictors of graduation or credential completion (i.e., persistence, course load, GPA, co-curricular engagement, belonging) are well established and could even be considered benchmarks of “success.” But what we either don’t know well enough or refuse to acknowledge is the value of postsecondary education to a student’s career “success” and true economic mobility.

ESG wants to know more. Through our research on how to understand and improve successful transitions from high school to postsecondary education, ESG has identified a set of “Momentum Metrics” that represent the more predictive indicators of postsecondary access and success. What if this concept was expanded to examine predictive measures of career success for students in postsecondary programs? 

We believe that the metrics identified in the PVC could be used as a base on which to:

– Agree on a set of metrics to measure student career outcomes; 

– Identify a list of “Career Momentum Metrics” that capture key decision and intervention points on a students’ trajectory that lead to those outcomes; 

– Invest in the data needed to confirm those metrics and predict long-term career outcomes; and ultimately

– Use that data to pilot the evidence-based interventions needed for institutions to create and sustain students’ career momentum.

Understanding “Career Momentum Metrics” (a.k.a. key decision points along a student’s journey) would give us insight into:

– The ways higher education is responsible for students’ choice-making that has implications for the rest of their careers

– The ways choices and behavioral decisions intensify the instances of “exception” (and widen equity gaps in career outcomes)

With established and widely-used “Career Momentum Metrics” throughout postsecondary and in the transition to career, the entire field can better understand how, when, and where to support students to postsecondary completion and beyond. We can, with the help of the PVC and Career Momentum Metrics, deliver on the actions in postsecondary that matter most — ensuring that long-term economic success after college is the rule and not the exception. This research provides the necessary cornerstone for recovery from a devastating pandemic, a stronger postsecondary system, and a more just society through equitable outcomes.