Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

October 30, 2019

Postsecondary Success Notes | How do you put a definition on value?


“What is college worth?”

It is an increasingly urgent question, given rising education costs and student debt, as well as growing income inequality. Earlier this year, we and our partners at the Institute for Higher Education Policy launched the Postsecondary Value Commission to dig into that very question.

The commission has an ambitious charge – define and measure the value of education after high school and equip students and families, college and university leaders, and policymakers with that information to promote change that increases the returns of that education. In conversations we’ve had across the country, one question dominates: can defining value be done?

It’s a fair question. After all, higher education is a complex and diverse enterprise, with more than 4,000 institutions of different sizes and missions. Any attempt to define or measure value has to take those differences into account and reflect economic and non-economic benefits for students and families and their communities.

But defining and measuring value can’t not be done, given the importance of education to economic and social mobility and the urgent need to address mobility gaps by race and income. There are educational benefits worth considering no matter the type of institution or program, like stable employment and earnings, opportunities for career advancement, the ability to repay educational debt, and even well-being. Understanding educational value – and how to improve it – is critical at a time when virtually all new jobs require education after high school and white adults are twice as likely as Latinx adults to have at least an associate’s degree.

What is college worth? It is a simple question without a simple answer, but it deserves the best answer we can give.

Patrick Methvin