Rebecca Watts, Ph.D., a higher education leader and policy expert, has held leadership positions at Western Governors University, the University of Wyoming, the Ohio Department of Higher Education, Ohio University, Murray State University, the Illinois State Board of Education, Lincoln Land Community College (Illinois). She holds a doctorate in higher education leadership from Ohio University, and degrees in communication, including a master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Springfield, a bachelor’s degree from Sangamon State University, Ill., and an associate degree from Lincoln Land Community College, Ill.
Now more than ever, stakeholders seek clear, transparent evaluation of the value of postsecondary learning. Students and families question the short-term and long-term return on investment. Policymakers ask if publicly supported colleges and universities are adequately advancing the public’s economic and holistic health. Employers seek assurance that graduates will be well prepared for employment on day one. Grantors and donors require evidence that the outcomes delivered align with their goals for investing and philanthropy.
Can higher education providers and regulators validly and reliably answer all these questions in a systematic way? It’s complicated. Because talent is both ubiquitous and unique, no single model of learning is right for everyone and for every purpose. With myriad institutional types and learner goals, defining consistent, meaningful measures is complex. Is the value of a community college less than or greater than that of a research university? It depends on whom you ask and what you’re measuring.
A longstanding value equation for postsecondary education calculates a) total cost against b) the learner experience and c) outcomes. Yet, underneath each element of this extremely simple equation lie immense variabilities. These differences significantly impact the deeply intertwined measures of cost, learner experience, and outcomes.
While cost is top of mind for all stakeholders, discussion of the nuances of the root causes of cost variabilities across institution types has not emerged in a significant way. Further, which payor(s) is incurring the cost is an important question to include when evaluating value.
According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, in 2021-2022, mean undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board rates across American institutions varied by $40,000 a year. At two-year public, nonprofit institutions—largely community colleges—tuition and fees were just over $11,600 per year. At four-year private, nonprofit universities, that figure was slightly more than $51,000 per year. While there is an argument that the cost difference can be attributed to greater academic prestige and opportunity, a key driver of the cost difference is tied to the sector and type of institution and the array of revenue sources supporting the institution’s operations.
At all accredited U.S. institutions, public and private alike, tuition support comes from a variety of sources—students/families, state and federal grants and loans, and private grantor and donor support. Additionally, for research institutions federal, state, and private research grants support research activity.
While it seems obvious, it’s important to note that support for public institution operating and capital costs includes state taxpayer dollars and local taxes for some community colleges. This funding explains a portion of the variance in tuition and fees between public and private institutions.
Measure: The Learner’s Experience
The learner experience encompasses learning resources, safe and secure learning facilities, technology, food service, co-curricular opportunities including athletics, and at residential schools modern housing facilities to meet the demands of the 21st-century learner. Students also expect health and wellness services, learning centers—writing and math, accommodations to meet student needs, and diversity, equity, and inclusion resources for veterans, women, LGBTQIA, and other communities.
An important, but seldom discussed cost driver for residential universities is tied to changing consumer demands since the early 2000s and a decreasing number of high school graduates in the U.S. In short, competition has escalated for enrollments, driving universities to respond to market pressures to expand residence hall configurations to include suites with private bathrooms, and/or apartments. Consumer demand also has prompted the design and construction of upscale recreational facilities including rock climbing walls, and, yes, lazy rivers.
Expenses at commuter colleges—largely community colleges and regional university campuses—are lower than residential universities as key cost drivers do not include housing and require lesser investments in dining, recreation, and co-curricular activities, including intramural and intercollegiate athletics.
While fully online universities have lower facility costs, they often have higher capital expenditures in technology than residential universities. Further, the wide variance in online learning models—synchronous versus competency-based, traditional academic calendar versus rolling start dates, and the model and cadence for one-on-one student advisement and coaching all have implications on cost, learner experience, and outcomes.
A postsecondary provider’s outcomes should be measured against the mission—what the institution has promised to deliver.
While mission statements include learning for individual students, even that central purpose varies by provider. Community colleges, career and technical centers, and some universities focus exclusively on equipping learners with career-relevant skills and critical thinking skills. Liberal arts colleges and universities are committed to providing broad-based learning experiences to prepare undergraduates to effectively navigate complex, diverse, dynamic contexts in society. The missions of research universities include a firm resolve to foster scholarship and research to benefit society at large.
In defining a core set of outcome measures, schools and regulators historically have focused on admission rates, learner diversity, student persistence, and graduation rates. Yet, this small set of performance indicators falls short of documenting optimal outcomes tied to the mission.
In the current transformational, scrutinized era for higher education, performance measures must move beyond the basics to provide transparent, relevant, understandable accountability that informs stakeholders. These measures might include employer satisfaction with graduate skills and knowledge; alumni lifetime earnings; graduates filling essential roles like nursing, medicine, teaching, technology, and infrastructure development; institutional research leading to medical and technological advances; the next wave of creative artists that shape, influence, and reflect society; and the impact of graduates who become influential societal leaders.
Not every institution will deliver outcomes across all these areas, nor should they. Just as no two learners are the same or have identical goals, we need a full array of higher education models and opportunities. While cost, learner experience, and outcomes vary, no single model is more noble or important than the others. And, all should be held accountable for delivering on their promises.
Answering Stakeholder Questions
This takes us back to the concept that talent is both ubiquitous and unique.
With valid and meaningful accountability measures in place, the rich diversity of meaningful learning opportunities will become clearer. Students will be able to discern what institution best supports their aspirations. Grantors and donors will be able to discern which institutional missions align best with their goals. Policymakers will be able to evaluate outcomes and focus on directing taxpayer investments to outcomes that align best with policy priorities.
There has been some progress in recent years. The Education Commission of the States (2021) reports that 40 states in the U.S. have a Statewide Longitudinal Data System—a detailed accounting of long-term educational outcomes. Yet, the ease of access, clarity for all stakeholders, and array of measures among these systems varies widely across states.
While the question of discerning the value of postsecondary learning remains unanswered, higher education institutions must proactively participate and highlight the importance of differences between institutions. Importantly, this must be done without asserting that any one model or institution is superior. We must be clear in communicating the details of costs to all parties, learner experiences, and outcomes so stakeholders can know, understand, and embrace the diversity of opportunities to provide optimal outcomes for all.