Americans are growing increasingly unsure about the return on their investments in higher education, according to a survey by New America. While about 70% of U.S. adults believe people with a college degree can earn a more livable wage than those who have only graduated from high school, many are concerned about the price they must pay to earn that degree.
The new report joins a pair of other surveys from Gallup and The Wall Street Journal on higher education’s decreased confidence in a college degree. With the College Board estimating that the average cost of tuition, fees, room, board and personal expenses for a full-time undergraduate student at an in-state public university is nearly $28,000 for a single year, it’s not difficult to understand what’s driving this sentiment.
While there has been a flurry of new metrics that attempt to quantify the value of a college degree at a more granular level, their focus on post-college earnings does not reflect the reality of today’s learners, many of whom have limited financial resources and significant responsibilities at home and work. They cannot wait for their financial investment to pay off. Learners need ways to measure not only the value of a degree but also the value of the individual steps they take on their way to graduation. In other words, they need ROI-as-you-go.
Degree programs should have meaningful and identifiable benchmarks en route to a degree. Students can then work toward these specific waypoints as academic goals in and of themselves. Conversely, the current model of higher education gives credit only if and when a learner reaches the end of the journey. It’s a broken system that hardly works even for traditional learners who enter college right after high school.
The typical undergraduate needs a median of 52 months—an extra semester’s worth of time and money—to earn a bachelor’s degree. For post-traditional learners, the journey is even more time-consuming. Among those who don’t start college until they turn 30, the median time between first entering college and completing a bachelor’s degree is 162 months, a staggering 13.5 years of starting and stopping school over and over again.
A stackable, ROI-as-you-go model straightens out the meandering paths that too many students wander upon. It would map out a direct path from the first class of an academic program to the last class so there are no wasted credits and unexpected expenses. It would blaze a clearly marked trail to the job market so learners who start a program know exactly what careers a program will lead to. And most importantly, it would provide learners with interim benchmarks with real and immediate payoffs.
Learners could enroll in a program and take several specific classes that intentionally prepare them to enter a career field. After they have started a new job, they could take several more specific, sequenced and career-focused courses that qualify them for a raise. Then, they could take several more logically-sequenced courses that could lead to a promotion or a position with another organization in the same field. Credits earned along the way should be stackable toward a degree or other credential of high value. These credits should also be transferable to other institutions so students’ aspirations are not derailed if life takes them in a different direction.
Consider how this approach might work in early childhood education, for instance. Many workers enter this critical and immensely understaffed profession with only a high school diploma or an associate’s degree, which means they have an enormous potential need for more schooling that can lead them to roles with increased responsibility and higher wages. If early childhood educators get clear returns, we can make the profession more accessible, reduce the chronic turnover endemic to the field and put more preschool teachers and workers on a path that leads upward to economic mobility.
This is just one example of how an ROI-as-you-go approach to postsecondary learning could be transformative not only for individual students but the economy as a whole. Demonstrating higher education’s worth to a skeptical public requires ensuring learners not only end their journey with a credential of value but that every step they take enables them to support their families better, advance their careers and achieve their goals.