Asking Different Questions About the Value of a College Education

In a recent post at the Hechinger Report, Caroline Preston attempts to frame an answer to the following question: “Will we reach a tipping point when a four-year degree is no longer worth it when it stops serving as a ticket into the middle class?”

It’s an interesting question but one that doesn’t quite get at the most pressing problem. Indeed there is ample evidence that college and other postsecondary education continues to provide value in today’s labor market.

According to Anthony Carnevale at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, there is “still a significant payoff from having a B.A. — and an unmet demand for these workers.” He estimates that as many as 80 percent of college degrees — including those in the Humanities — provide value in today’s labor market.

But that’s not the entire picture. As Mark Perry illustrates in this chart, the cost of college tuition has risen 183.8% in the last 21 years, an increase outpaced only by hospital services.

In other words, the question we need to ask isn’t whether college and other certificate training continue to be valuable and necessary with regards to achieving financial success. The answer to that question remains an unqualified yes.

The questions we should be asking are about the value of and access to postsecondary education at current prices (by current prices, I am referring to tuition plus fees plus the cost of course materials).

For those who can either afford the costs or who are willing/able to incur student debt, the answer is still yes.

Unfortunately, the rising costs of postsecondary education are rapidly leaving many folks behind. In spite of the various grant, loan, and other aid packages, the net cost of a year of postsecondary education has simply become unreachable for many.

What’s the answer? At TEL, we advocate a four-part solution.

First, we believe it is essential to provide streamlined access to postsecondary education to high school students throughout the U.S. This education should include general education college courses (the first two years of college that often include much of the same information covered in 11th and 12th grades), as well as workforce and career readiness training for those students looking to bypass college and go directly into the labor market. This education should, to the extent possible be free of bureaucracy and traditional enrollment paperwork. For the underserved students who think college isn’t something they can attain, we have to make it easy to get started, to try it out. The best way to do that is by introducing postsecondary study in a safe and familiar environment.

Second, we need to spend ample time helping students understand the essential skills and mindset that are required to be successful in college and professional life. We believe this curricular focus should be introduced to students while they are still making decisions about the best path for their professional life.

Third, we believe that this postsecondary education must be both affordable and accessible. For all students.

What does that mean?

We think a good starting point is less than $100 for three hours of college credit. All inclusive. This means access to all course materials, course instruction, grading, support, technology, and administration. At that price, anyone can complete the equivalent of one year of college for less than $1,000.

It also means that the curriculum must be delivered in flexible formats, digital and print, and address a variety of instructional models ranging from self-paced online to blended learning.

Finally, we understand that to achieve the highest impact, these courses must be high-quality. They must reflect a commitment to demonstrable mastery of learning and prepare students for the rigors of future learning and employment.

This framework is the core of our mission and work at TEL, and over the coming weeks, we will be announcing exciting new collaborations and initiatives that will help us realize our mission.

I look forward to these announcements and to the impactful work that we will be doing in 2019.

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