Value of College Can Be Hard to Measure, But Having the Right Data Can Help, Experts Say

Related topics in the Ref Desk: Cost of Attendance; Pell Grant; FAFSA

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The proliferation of data in recent years can be a way to help student loan borrowers and families better understand the true value of a college education, but it can also be used to try to “debunk” the value of a degree, depending on which data are used and how the numbers are presented.

From Department of Education (ED) data to college rankings and everything in between, the patchwork of different data points can make it tough to narrow down which metrics give students, families, and policymakers the most useful information for their purposes.

In a panel discussion hosted by the Education Writers Association as part of its national seminar, Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, and Dominique Baker, assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, explained how data can be utilized to present a clear picture of college value when done correctly and help borrowers and families make informed choices.

Baker stressed that when most people think about why college mattered to them, they often reference how they met their best friend or learned life skills to help them excel in their career — things are difficult to measure or place value on. 

“There are a lot of different ways that we can measure an individual’s return on investment when it comes to college,” she said. “But this is not just about individuals. This is also about the way we think about college's value to society. … There are all sorts of ways that college can provide value to our broader society, but typically it's really difficult to measure those types of things.”

She said those factors are what makes trying to define the value of college so difficult, and suggested thinking beyond the individual student and their return on investment for the degree they attained. 

Additionally, she said attempting to measure the value of college broadly can often be an exercise in futility because of the multitude of college options available to students these days. If you’re measuring the value of a bachelor’s degree, Baker asked, where does a student who earned an associate degree fit into that calculation, or those who earned other types of postsecondary credentials?

“You want to pay really close attention to thinking about who’s in the sample,” Baker said. “Who’s actually in the data and who's not in the data?”

Take for instance College Scorecard data made publicly available by ED. Even though the scorecard covers all institutions that participate in the federal student aid programs, if you want to measure the value from an individual program, you’ll run into a handful of issues. If too few students have earned a degree from that program, for example, earnings information won’t be available because it's not a representative sample, Baker noted.

“There are real patterns to who is missing information even in data that covers all colleges and universities,” she said.

Kelchen noted that when the value of a degree is assessed, it's almost always in terms of borrowers’ post-college earnings and the debt they hold from earning their degree. 

He added that the recent addition of program-level data to the College Scorecard is helpful but is lacking in some ways due to the fact that many students at community colleges don’t file the FAFSA and therefore are missing from the data set. 

While there has been debate over whether to include race and ethnicity data on the FAFSA, those questions will be added to the form starting in 2023 at the latest as part of the FAFSA overhaul and simplification recently signed into law, meaning race and ethnicity data will be added to the College Scorecard soon after.

“As a research community, we are trying to figure out what exactly that means, but it will also help us solve some long-standing issues about the implications of student debt and earnings by race where we didnt have the same level of information,” Kelchen said.

Both Kelchen and Baker noted the pitfalls of relying on data that comes from students filling out the FAFSA. First and foremost, they noted, not everyone fills out the FAFSA — but that doesn’t necessarily mean they come from a high-income family and don’t need or qualify for federal financial aid.

“It’s actually a mix of wealthier students and students for whom the form is laborious and complicated, those who don’t think they will qualify for aid even though they will,” Baker said.

In the community college sector, many students choose not to complete the FAFSA to save their financial aid eligibility for programs such as the Pell Grant for later on in their college career, Kelchen added.

For Kelchen, a key metric to measure whether a college degree was worth it for an individual is student loan repayment rates.

“That shows not just the family’s or the student’s overall wellbeing, it also has implications for taxpayers, because if students aren’t repaying their loans, then the taxpayer may end up paying for some of that or all of that,” he said.


Publication Date: 5/6/2021

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