The full value of higher education can’t be measured in financial outcomes alone but must also take into account the advancement of social justice, argue Kayla C. Elliot and Tiffany Jones.
By Kayla C. Elliott and Tiffany Jones
As the need for a college credential in the labor market has grown, so, too, has the price of earning one and the debt that increasingly comes with it. It’s not surprising then that the value of higher education is often reduced to dollars and cents or that people are questioning whether it’s worth the cost.
Yet many of the benefits of going to college are intangible. That is why the Postsecondary Value Commission set out to define the value of a higher education, evaluate the potential returns on an undergraduate degree or certificate, and develop a new framework to shape postsecondary policy discussions. The commission based its definition not only on labor and financial outcomes but also on equity, noting the economic and societal effects of degree attainment gaps, program-of-study gaps and wage and wealth gaps by race and ethnicity — and the potential economic returns of closing them.
The commission also looked beyond earnings potential and economic mobility, grappling with societal and civic returns and questions like: Are institutions responsible for preparing their students to reap and sow civic and societal benefits that have no price tag? Should institutions be judged on the extent to which their students and graduates work to advance humanity not just in regard to finances or innovation, but also social consciousness and racial justice?
Discussions about the value of a postsecondary education must consider the ways in which institutions embody their commitment to racial equity — taking into account how people of color are represented, employed and treated on campus, and whether and how racially inclusive curricula and pedagogy are used.
As equity advocates and members of the commission’s research task force, we were charged with identifying indicators that measure how well colleges prepare students to promote racial and socioeconomic justice. Over the last year — in the wake of national protests over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other unarmed Black people, as well as a pandemic that has taken a disproportionate toll on people of color — college leaders issued impassioned statements supporting racial justice and condemning anti-Black and anti-Asian racism. Yet their words ring hollow when so many fail to do what’s necessary to diversify their campuses, when few are doing their part to educate students of color and when even fewer have staff and faculty that reflect the diversity of their students and communities. Institutions of higher education that do not equitably educate and employ people of color are not advancing racial justice, nor are they well situated to prepare students to confront racial injustice in their careers and civic lives.
In fairness, some institutions have established new directorships or vice presidencies to lead the development, implementation and assessment of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practices and policies on their campuses. Such commitments are a step in the right direction, but they are only one of many necessary steps on the road to racial justice. Campuses must empower DEI leaders with the ability to assess and transform admissions and hiring policies that obstruct access and limit success for students, faculty and staff.
Moreover, statements must be accompanied by meaningful actions that address inequities across campus functions and departments. A budget is a reflection of an institution’s priorities. Institutions of higher education that offer significantly more merit-based aid than need-based aid and fail to adequately invest in student success functions that boost retention and attainment for students of color — such as advising, coaching, mentoring and tutoring — are sending a clear message about their values and beliefs about who deserves access to an education.
If colleges are going to live up to their promises to advance racial justice, they must give students, staff and faculty opportunities to engage in critical discourse on race, racism and oppression. They should train all campus stakeholders to consider their language and identities and to recognize their own privilege, as well as how these things impact how they perceive and are perceived on campus and in the world. Faculty, in particular, need to be empowered to foster inclusion and root out bias in the classroom and curriculum — e.g., incorporating authors of color, texts that critically explore racial disparities and discussions of how people of color have contributed to — and been excluded from — certain fields.
What gets measured matters. There’s a relationship between what we measure and what we value. To foster equity, institutions must lead change with data. Much of the conversation on accountability for racial equity in higher education focuses on using quantitative data to close access and attainment gaps. But institutional accountability shouldn’t be limited to admissions and graduation. It also should cover students’ experiences on campuses, including their success, safety, sense of belonging and access to resources. Many of the assessments we examined evaluate whether an institution has processes in place to foster inclusion and social justice learning but fail to measure the outcomes of those processes.
For example, many surveys asked students whether they had access to courses, clubs, events and supports based on race, but none asked how well those experiences prepared them to address racial and social justice. Institutions should commit to gathering data that look beyond traditional student outcome indicators, like retention and graduation. Measuring an institution’s impact on racial justice means taking a hard look at institutional systems and processes in order to root out bias (implicit or otherwise) by gatekeepers and decision makers in functions like recruitment, admissions, financial aid, hiring, academics and student discipline.
A comprehensive assessment of student preparation for combating racial injustice cannot be based solely on quantitative data from surveys and tools that measure what students know about racism at multiple points, but should rely on an appropriate combination of qualitative and quantitative tools that measure how effectively different aspects of the college experience teach students about issues of race and racism. While there have been academic studies of campus racial climates and diversity, equity and inclusion for several decades, those concepts must be viewed as integral to how colleges and policy makers measure and assess their performance over all.
College campuses have long been the training grounds for advocates and activists of the women’s rights, civil rights, antiwar and Black Lives Matter movements. They also sit at the nexus of the arts, humanities, social sciences and hard sciences, as well as business, law and medicine, and they will train the next generation of researchers, practitioners and business and political leaders. As colleges prepare students to combat racial injustices in their work and lives, they are advancing equity in various fields and in society more broadly. Consider the obstetrician who studied Black maternal mortality rates; the engineer who uncovered design flaws in fetal heart rate monitors that don’t work properly on people with darker skin tones; the hospital HR director who found pay inequities between white, Latinx and Black nurses; and the graduate medical education director who understands the bias in traditional measures of merit and why it is important to recruit Black medical students.
A college degree has the potential to change the way students see the world and themselves. Diverse campuses, classrooms and courses broaden students’ thinking and understanding. These experiences present opportunities to challenge, expand and shape their worldviews. Marginalized students can learn to navigate and confront bias and oppression in the workplace and in the world. Privileged students can gain a better understanding about the realities that people of other cultures and identities face, enabling them to engage with their peers and careers through a culturally competent lens.
Today’s students are altruistic. Many young people, particularly millennials and members of Generation Z, seek not only to make enough money to survive and thrive, but also to make a difference. They report a strong interest in work that helps others and are more likely to participate in activism and make charitable donations.
But the questions remain: Did going to college teach them to think more critically or more deeply about systemic inequality? Did their experiences help prepare them to be the change agents they want to be? Can colleges be better catalysts for social change? And, finally, if colleges fail to give their graduates the intellectual tools they need to break down barriers; transform racist, classist social systems into more equitable ones; and make the world a better place, then what is the college degree really worth?
Kayla C. Elliott, Ph.D., is director for higher education policy at the Education Trust. Tiffany Jones, Ph.D., is deputy director of data measurement, learning and evaluation at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They both contributed significantly to a new report by the Postsecondary Value Commission, “Equitable Value: Promoting Economic Mobility and Social Justice Through Postsecondary Education,” sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Inside Higher Ed received financial support from the Gates Foundation for coverage of the foundation’s report on the value of higher education. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full control over the content.