It’s the trillion dollar question facing students and families today: Is college really worth it? With stories of underemployed college graduates and successful dropouts dominating the news, the pressures and anxieties experienced by prospective students continue to rise, especially as college tuition and student debt skyrocket.
Rest assured, we know from decades of research that a college education still pays off, particularly for students from families with modest means. Students who receive bachelor’s degrees or higher earn on average about two to three times more over their lifetimes than students with no postsecondary experience. Going to college is still a relatively safe bet.
The problem is that we don’t yet have good enough information about which colleges and programs offer the best bang for students’ often-borrowed buck. Gauging your odds of transferring or completing college or measuring the return on investment for your credential is challenging because critical data are not readily available for all types of students or institutions. This is especially true if you are a low-income, adult, part-time or transfer student. These students are literally missing or invisible in today’s outdated and disconnected data systems, leaving far too many families in the dark as they make decisions about one of their most important investments.
I know. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I felt like I was completely guessing when choosing a school. While things turned out all right for me, I know now that I was the exception, not the rule. I would have greatly benefited from knowing how well the colleges I was considering did at educating students like me and how well those students did after college. We know more about our cars than our colleges, and more about our odds of winning Powerball than our odds of getting a good job after college. Students, families, and the country simply cannot afford to leave college completion to chance given the escalating costs.
Why does this matter? It matters because our economy actually needs a lot more people with education after high school—as many as 11 million more by 2025. And meeting that need means better supporting the new majority of college students—low-income and first-generation college students, working adults, and students of color—who have historically experienced higher hurdles to college access, affordability, and success.
Fortunately, a growing number of states and their colleges and universities have decided that better information is not just “nice to have” but “must have.” They are using new data like how many of their students are making it through entry-level courses and how many of their graduates are employed and repaying their student loans. Using data on student progress and retention, schools like Georgia State University have improved their advising and financial aid services, dramatically improving success rates for all students. That is data making a difference.
The job now is to make these data more widely available so that all students and all institutions have clear, comparable information for making important decisions. Earlier this month, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released recommendations for improving the quality and availability of critical data about student access, progress, completion, cost, and post-college outcomes, based on a decade of innovation by leading states and institutions. Having this information will help students size up their fit and chances of success at particular schools, and just as importantly, will help colleges and universities provide better and timelier support to their students. Better data alone will not guarantee better student outcomes, but a lack of better data will guarantee that our efforts to improve those outcomes will fall short.
When my sons are ready to go to college, I want them to have much better information about their options than I had available to me. We’re getting closer, but we’re not there yet. And with $1 trillion in debt on the line, we owe it to all of our students and families to succeed in this effort. For more information, visit www.higheredfacts.org.
Jennifer Engle is a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.