College Value

States Lead the Way to Better College, Workforce Decisions

Derek Redelman, USA FundsBy Derek Redelman, Senior Program Director, USA Funds

The U.S. Department of Education recently unveiled a College Scorecard that represents a step forward in helping prospective college students, and their parents, make better college choices. But if college-bound students are to have the best information for selecting postsecondary programs — and policymakers and educators are to have better tools for their higher education and workforce policy and program decisions — the mother lode of relevant data, and much of the activity to mine it, resides at the state level.

Earlier this week USA Funds® brought together in Indianapolis three dozen researchers, state officials, college and university leaders, and student representatives to discuss how to better coordinate and accelerate the development of accessible, relevant and accurate information on the value of college and workforce training programs. Here is some of what we learned from this meeting.

Thanks to the work of the Data Quality Campaign, the Workforce Data Quality Campaign and other organizations, as well as individual states, virtually every state has in place a longitudinal data system that collects education and workforce data over time. What remains to be done is to tap this wealth of data to produce useful information to answer questions like, “What college should I attend if I want to pursue a career in the agricultural industry in Northwest Indiana?” or, “What institutional or state-level policy changes will make a real difference in enhancing college completion rates for minority students?”

Individual states, with the support of research organizations like the American Institutes for Research, College Measures, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, Burning Glass and Gallup, already are parsing this data into new decision-making resources.

Indiana, for example, plans to enhance its College Return on Investment Reports, with noneconomic data about graduates’ job satisfaction and engagement, civic involvement and health. California has tapped these data to support a change in transfer policies to enhance the success of minority students and produce a cost analysis of students’ time to degree completion. Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Mexico and Texas are among other states moving forward with their own initiatives.

Defining ROI

Despite strident criticism of the College Scorecard from some sectors of the higher education community, many individual colleges and universities — Texas State Technical College and the University System of Georgia among them — embrace the concept of data-driven, outcomes-based decision making to better advance their missions, and enhance the results they produce for their most important customers, their students and taxpayers. Institutions are grappling with operational details, like data quality and working definitions of key terms, to refine their models for decision making.

In the all-important area of sub-baccalaureate workforce training programs, the National Skills Coalition is building dashboards to help decision makers in select states assess the efficacy of various combinations of training programs and other workforce development services on an individual’s success in the labor market.

The student representatives at the USA Funds gathering offered a unique and important perspective. They want information that’s relevant to their questions about which postsecondary programs will give them the best shot at the most financially rewarding careers and also those that align with their interests and passions. They want useful information that helps them explore all of the options for postsecondary education and training. And they want the information to come from a credible source. One student noted that she placed the greatest weight in her college selection on a prospective employer’s opinion of the college and its programs.

A confluence of factors — states adopting outcomes-based appropriations for higher education, the critical need for students and parents to make the best choices for one of the largest investments a family will make, and the availability of new resources and the engagement of some very smart people — is powering nationwide interest in new models for assessing the value of college and other postsecondary programs.

Based on this work at the state level, our children and the next generation of adult learners will benefit from robust new resources to help guide them along the path through postsecondary education to prosperity and personal fulfillment following graduation.

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