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Unlocking the ‘Black Box’ of College Outcomes (EdSurge)

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

First published on EdSurge

Consumers today have access to thousands of reviews and copious amounts of data on just about every item they purchase (even the seemingly insignificant, like a $20 HDMI cable). But when it comes to making what, for most, will be one of the largest investments in their lifetime, prospective college students have precious little information that could guide their decision-making process.

College outcomes are, as it turns out, a black box. Not surprisingly, surveys now suggest that if they could do it all again, most graduates would choose a different school or major.

As you think back on your own educational experience, wouldn’t you have liked to have known that only 60 percent of your peers were likely to make it it through to graduation? Or that those who fail to complete are rarely able to pay off their loans and end up being worse off financially?

The data is both informative and troubling. Fifty-seven percent of borrowers who entered repayment of student loans in 2012 owed more than they started with after two years—meaning they're accumulating interest faster than they're paying down their loans. At 1,840 colleges, over half of federal student loan borrowers have not paid down a single loan dollar after three years.

These are tragic realities that education consumers should know before they go.

Even more distressing: Although 80 percent of students cite the prospect of a job as the motivating force behind their decision to enroll in college, only 36 percent of currently enrolled students feel ready for the workforce. Less than half of liberal-arts students are confident that their major will lead to good jobs. As one study of college majors put it, “not all college degrees are created equal.”

Imagine what a Yelp review for the Associate’s degree might say: Just one in five graduates earn the two-year degree within six years. And absent some additional, technical skillset, such degrees confer little economic value. According to one recent study, some Associate’s degrees may actually result in a wage penalty when compared to Associate’s degrees in more technical fields.

The takeaway is that we cannot continue to ask students to blindly enroll in college without understanding the empirical implications of their choices. And an emphasis on employment outcomes should not be taboo among college leaders—even within our most-revered liberal arts programs.

My organization’s most recent Education Consumer Survey with Gallup reveals that those who do not have a work outcome as their primary motivation are less likely to persist. Those who fail to complete their educational programs are more likely to say their main reason for enrolling was “to learn” or “to gain knowledge.” Meanwhile, those who complete programs are more likely to identify work aspirations as their main motivation. Learning and work are inseparable.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences put it best in their report on the future of undergraduate education: “Today, the long-standing debate over the value of a liberal arts education versus a more applied postsecondary program presents a false choice.”

One way out of this false choice is for colleges to evolve campus offerings to better prepare students for the changing world of work. In McKinsey’s report, “A Future that Works,” the authors rightly assert that learning providers will have “to improve basic skills in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and put a new emphasis on creativity, as well as on critical and systems thinking. Developing agility, resilience, and flexibility will be important for everyone at a time when everybody’s job is likely to change to some degree.”

We must get ahead of the curve and begin to evolve our thinking on preparing students for the workforce. Institutions cannot continue to do things the way they’ve always been done and ignore the needs of the labor market. The bootcamps that are emerging in web development, sales and data analytics are not going to disappear. Rather, over time, these last-mile training programs will only proliferate across different industries and further encroach upon the territory of colleges and universities.

To make well-informed decisions, Americans deserve more transparency about future outcomes of a college education, and those outcomes will have to translate learning to know into learning to do.

Learners of the future will demand more direct and promising pathways between education and fulfilling lives, and that will almost always involve meaningful work.

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