Skip to main content
Blog Post

Value Needs to be the Next Buzzword in Higher Education


October 20, 2023

For a long time, advocates and policymakers in the higher education space were fixated on improving “access” to higher education. As a society, we recognized that higher education was a powerful tool for promoting social mobility, and helping people born into lower-income households advance financially and pursue fulfilling careers. We also realized that higher education was failing to do all it could to expand opportunity because of a broken admissions system and financial infrastructure which largely confined enrollment to an already-privileged class of students. 

Our commitment to improving access meant focusing on getting more students across all racial and socioeconomic groups to enroll at higher rates. But in focusing single-mindedly on access, the value proposition of a college diploma was compromised. For one, many of the new enrollees to college never made it across the finish-line to graduation day, which left many worse off than where they started. 

Access without value isn’t all that it was cracked up to be. 

This week, I hosted a convening of experts on the issue of measuring value to help advance the conversation on how to put value at the forefront of the discourse on higher education policy, honing in on what truly makes higher education “worth it” for students. The venue offered a unique opportunity to exchange and promote ideas about how to measure economic returns on different opportunities in higher education, and then use those measurements to inform policy and promote more informed consumer decision-making. 

For our first panel, I was joined by Sarah Turner, professor and economist at the University of Virginia; Preston Cooper, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity; and David Troutman, Deputy Commission of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for a discussion on how value can be measured theoretically. We concluded that fuller access to data on students’ postgraduate earnings would better enable economists to build models that could be used by regulators and universities to measure diplomas’ worth, but that such data must be collected with an eye to protecting people’s privacy.

During lunch, Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University (WGU), spoke about how WGU seeks to maximize the value of their programs, and how value must be considered by colleges and universities. “The promise of education is that if you attain education, you attain opportunity,” he said. Speaking about universities’ obligation to students, he said that, “You have to think about, fundamentally, are you delivering value for them?” 

Lastly, I moderated a panel discussion between Rajeev Darolia, Senior Advisor to the Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Education; Chance Russell, economist and advisor for the U.S. House’s Education and Workforce Committee; and Stig Leschly, president and founder of the Postsecondary Commission. We discussed the practical questions facing the implementation of legislation which would hold institutions of higher learning accountable for the value of their programs, seeking to translate theory into practice. While Republicans traditionally have strayed away from higher education reform, now they’re stepping up to the plate with pragmatic solutions. “There is a moment here where there is bipartisan agreement on accountability,” said Chance. “We had a hearing back in July, and I think if you closed your eyes and didn’t know which side of the dais people were on, you’d kind of wonder, ‘is this person a Republican or a Democrat?’”

Value wasn’t part of the discourse a few decades ago. Now it’s gaining traction, demanding the attention of lawmakers, advocates, and the students themselves who can police college value by voting with their dollars and their feet. That’s a huge step forward, but we’ve got a ways to go before value truly becomes the North Star of higher education reform. Nonetheless, “Value” should be the new buzzword in higher education.