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Talking about Value of Higher Education to the Individual and Society: Five Questions for the Arkansas State University System

By Jeff Selingo | Gates Foundation

Higher education is well known for creating opportunities for economic and social mobility for all students, but the ability to complete credentials is not equally distributed across the United States.

In some states, students are being left behind, particularly increasing numbers of students of color, first generation students, and low-income students. What’s critical to moving the needle on the postsecondary attainment is sharing information not only about its return to the individual but also the community and society as a whole.

In Arkansas, Chuck Welch has been focused on talking about education as an investment rather than a cost in a state where many students are first in their family to go to college. Welch is president of the Arkansas State University System, which serves nearly 23,000 students. He also just completed a term as chairman of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).

Recently, higher education author and expert Jeff Selingo caught up Welch to find out how he measures and communicates value to various stakeholders in his state.

What does value in higher education mean to you and why is it so important to be talking about value at this moment?

In the past, the culture in my home state of Arkansas didn’t place a lot of value on earning a college degree. I’m a first-generation college student, and the first member of my extended family to get a graduate degree.

I see higher education as an investment, and not a cost. I want students, parents, and policymakers to see not only the personal benefits of a degree, but also the way a higher education benefits families, and entire communities.

Educated communities often have lower unemployment rates, less reliance on public support services, healthier populations, higher tax rolls, and more participation in philanthropic and volunteer activities. That’s where the real value of a higher education lies—in the long-term benefits to both individuals and our society.

How can campus leaders and policymakers refocus the value of a higher education to include both the individual benefits of education, as well as the public benefits?

We need to do more to link education with the advantages it has on our society. When we only report how many of our students graduate, or what type of career outcomes they have, we’re not telling the broader story around the value of an education.

We need to tell more stories about the percentage of family members who go to college because a parent or other family member did. We need to talk about the differences in income, and health between a college educated individual, and someone who is not. These are the stories about how education changes the whole picture for people.

On average, Arkansas spends about $24,000 per year to incarcerate an individual but spends just $6,000 a year to educate a person. We’re spending four times more to imprison our residents than what we’re spending to educate them. There’s no guarantee a strong education will translate into a person’s success. But when we educate people on the front end, we’re less likely to have to incarcerate them on the back end. Think about it: more than 90% of those who are incarcerated have a high-school diploma or less. Again, there’s no guarantee that we’d reduce our prison population, for example, but the correlation is strong between college and success.

We’ve got to talk about impacts like this, and others, and we don’t. It’s going to take time, it’s going to take specific examples, and we’re really going to have to give concrete evidence of education’s ROI on a global scale.

How can institutions capture the idea of value in a way that makes the information useful to not only prospective students, but other stakeholders? 

Many of our institutions educating first-generation students from impoverished backgrounds—the individuals who perhaps education is having the greatest impact on—are also the institutions with the least sophisticated institutional research functions, which creates a data problem.

When you look at a large school like the University of Texas or the University of California system, they have sophisticated institutional research and data sets, and tools that many regional, comprehensive or community colleges don’t have access to. We’ve got to find a way to bridge those gaps.

In the Arkansas State University system, we implemented an institutional research function to dive deeper into individual stories and communicate those outcomes as data. At the institutional level, we’ve got to get to the point where we almost have two sets of data researchers: those who do the mandatory reporting, and those who conduct a deeper analysis of graduates.

Then the challenge becomes linking our data to state data on employment, and other types of government programs, because organizations can be territorial in terms of sharing data. We need to look at how many of our students are employed in the field they graduated in, and strategically show the impact of our graduates.

I know a number of institutions do ROI analyses and bring in firms that say for every dollar a student spends at an institution, they will get X dollars in return. But the policymaker responses to those studies are typically not positive. They think those numbers are inflated. We need to figure out what data is believable, and what information is going to sell the value of education. That information can also be qualitative, when we work with students to tell their stories.

It’s got to start with accurate data that that people can trust, because that’s been a real challenge for many institutions.

How can college presidents help their counterparts also promote the greater value higher education has for students and societies? 

This is a passion for me; it’s my own story. I know how transformative higher education was for me, the opportunities it afforded me.

Key to the issue, we had not seen any new, significant government funding for our institutions in almost two decades. I said to colleagues in my state, we’ve got to change the narrative that we only care about how many students we have, and all we want to do is raise tuition.

And we actually did change the conversation in Arkansas and went to an outcomes-based formula to demonstrate the benefits of higher education, and the results we’re producing.

We need to devise strategies for institutions to talk about value, benefit, and ROI to the individual and society, as a mechanism to influence governmental funding streams.

We’re going to have to tie the conversation around value to an institution’s financial returns, which drives a lot of presidents. Linking value to revenue will always be something that energizes an institution’s president.

There are also myths that need to be dispelled, especially around student loan debt. It’s reported as this large figure, without the underlying discussion that half of debt comes from for-profit institutions. It’s our public, non-profit institutions that educate the majority of our students, and probably provide the greatest ROI per student graduate, and do not cause massive debt.

How else can quality data and information dispel myths around the value of higher education?

The first step is public discussion about value. The general public, and many of my own colleagues, don’t understand how poorly many policymakers view higher education institutions. Many politicians have this idea all we want to do is construct new buildings, raise tuition, and fund athletic programs.

To change that mindset, we’ve got to ask the question, why are we doing what we’re doing? What are both the individual and broader benefits to communities? When we have these conversations, we can ingrain in the minds of policymakers higher education is an investment with long-term reward and payoff.

We’re in a society that demands immediate gratification, where we want to fund something and see immediate return. But that’s not how colleges and universities work. It takes time for that to build but we’ve got to get started and I think just simply highlighting this publicizing this and having the conversations is a is a great way to get energy behind the movement.

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