As the number of good job opportunities for those without some form of postsecondary education beyond high school is shrinking and it is becoming increasingly necessary for people to earn a credential, there needs to be a universal standard by which lawmakers and stakeholders judge higher education programs, according to a new proposal from The Century Foundation (TCF).
The proposal released last week, "Educational Adequacy in the Twenty-First Century," suggested that programs be deemed "adequate" if they demonstrate that they prepare students to be "economically self-sufficient," or, as the paper's authors define it, make more than $35,000 annually 10 years after completion. They added that this figure "is not a goal that programs should strive upward to reach, but rather a floor through which they must not fall."
"Americans who devote two years of their lives to postsecondary education, and then spend a decade in the labor market, should at least be able to attain this standard of self-sufficiency; if they cannot, then this raises serious questions about education's role and value in a democratic capitalist society," the study's authors, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce's Anthony P. Carnevale, Jeff Strohl, and Artem Gulish, wrote.
The authors settled on the amount of $35,000, which they warned should be adjusted depending on the "appropriate adequate earnings" by area or state, primarily because it is "the entry point into the middle class." They wrote that "this earnings floor is the minimum necessary to enter the middle four deciles of earnings as defined by full-time full-year workers aged 25 through 64, which we believe is a good place to start."
In an effort to account for programs' varying times-to-completion and expenses, the authors argued that during those 10 years, programs should be also be judged on their ability to prepare graduates to earn more than their counterparts in the workforce with only high school diplomas, and cover the program's direct and opportunity costs, or the net price and earnings students lost from taking time out of the labor market to earn a degree.
The authors wrote that this proposal aligns with a shifting focus in higher education on programmatic outcomes and students' return on their investment. While the Trump administration is in the process of rewriting an Obama-era consumer protection regulation — gainful employment — that sought to hold schools accountable for students' debt and earnings by program, the authors argued that bipartisan initiatives like the College Transparency Act and the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act prove that there is a desire for a set standard for judging programs by outcomes.
"The goals of education in modern democratic capitalism must strike a pragmatic balance between the intrinsic value of human flourishing and the extrinsic economic value of careers that provide access to broad, middle-class earnings. And while equitable funding for community colleges to achieve adequate outcomes is an important policy objective, it is imperative to clearly and concretely establish the outcomes that postsecondary education is expected to achieve to be considered adequate," the authors wrote. "Equalized funding does not, in itself, ensure that higher education fulfills its intended role in American democracy. By the same token, we cannot begin determining an appropriate level of funding until we have a clearly defined goal of success."
Further, the authors argued that there are benefits to using programmatic outcomes as a measure of success, such as allowing schools flexibility in how they deliver their education.
"[T]he use of labor market outcomes as a standard provides a uniform incentive for all types of postsecondary education programs, without discouraging local experimentation or the innovation and customization of educational delivery, curriculum development, or faculty relations," the authors wrote. "In the end, it doesn't matter how the education is delivered, so long as it enables individuals to become self-sufficient and be able to cover the costs of obtaining it."
The authors acknowledged, however, that there are number of challenges associated with setting one earnings-based standard by which to judge programs, and urged researchers to address issues such as how to measure the outcomes of non-completers, those who attend more than one institution or program, and the non-monetary benefits of higher education.
"Higher education is a complex endeavor. Outcomes are affected by many interconnected elements. Oversimplification that emphasizes the importance of some elements and ignores others will lead to skewed incentives and undermine the holistic nature of higher education. That said, the difficulties we face in grappling with such challenges should not become an excuse for failing to improve the higher education system and hold state and local governments accountable for their higher education policies and expenditures," they wrote.
Publication Date: 5/7/2018