Ask Americans about the most important reasons for attending college, and the top considerations they cite are jobs, jobs, and jobs.
While there is much to value in the traditional college experience, for the vast majority of students, it comes down to getting a degree that leads to a professionally and financially rewarding job. The evidence is clear: Earning a bachelor’s degree translates into considerably better jobs and earnings opportunities for most graduates. It also correlates with a healthier, longer life.
However, widespread concerns about the cost of a degree and the value of that degree have merit, and the return on the investment in a college degree is not automatic.
Higher education still costs too much for too many, and students who invest in a college education rightly expect a labor market payoff for their effort. Some question whether college is within reach or whether the investment in a degree will pay off.
The COVID-19 pandemic and a long-overdue racial discrimination reckoning have underscored the urgency of addressing these concerns. Times like the present are opportunities for transformational change. Our universities proved that they could be nimble and adaptive when the pandemic emerged in 2020, pivoting to virtual instruction and providing online support for students practically overnight.
This weekend in Denver, more than 1,000 public research university leaders from across North America are convening for the start of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities Annual Meeting. Our institutions enroll over 6 million students, award 1.3 million degrees per year, and are leaders in research, such as that which made the rapid development of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 possible. Colorado is exceptionally fortunate to have several world-leading public research universities advancing the public good across the state.
College access and affordability are at the core of our public service mission. Despite decades of state disinvestment in public universities nationally, public higher education continues to provide the most affordable path to a college degree. As a share of state budgets nationally, investment in public higher education fell from 8.7% in 1980 to 5.5% in 2019 – a 37% decline. States must redouble investment in public universities to address the cost of college and to assure that our states have the workforce needed to drive economic growth and development.
Public higher education also needs to adapt to advance affordability better so that everyone, regardless of ZIP code, has access to college. The good news is that we have strong models of how to lower costs for students and how to level the playing field for all students.
Institutions can redesign curricula to eliminate bottlenecks and roadblocks that unintentionally slow or disrupt progress to graduation. They can also provide clearer and more successful degree pathways for students to identify and complete a degree appropriate to the career they seek.
By addressing students’ basic needs in areas such as food insecurity, mental health, and child care, institutions can advance equity and greatly reduce the number of students who have to drop out of college. And they can provide greater transparency about the cost of college by communicating about grant aid, loans, and work-study support in the simplest language possible to ensure students know the true costs of the degree, including what it will cost to repay loans.
Return on investment is another top priority. The data are clear that students see the value of their education first through the prism of return on investment. Median annual earnings for recent college graduates are $22,000 higher than for those whose highest degree is a high school diploma.
However, we have more work to do to ensure all students see this kind of payoff. This includes better career planning earlier in the college experience so that students intentionally build their resumes and enter the workforce well-prepared upon graduation. Institutions can also provide more students with opportunities for internships, research experience, and leadership experience. And they can provide students with a clearer understanding of how the material in college courses translates into demonstrating the skills that employers are looking for.
The new post-pandemic world we are approaching is dramatically different than before, and our public research universities are necessarily changing to meet the needs of a shifting society. That’s why the theme of the Denver conference is Future Forward.
Going forward, we must innovate and adapt to meet the changing needs of students and society. This means exploring how to better prepare students for jobs central to the economy’s success, rallying the research enterprise to meet society’s needs in areas such as health and clean energy, and partnering with communities to tackle the daunting challenges they face. Public research universities are one bone in the strong back of our country. Our challenge now is to be nimble and deliver on the timeless mission at a time we are more needed than ever before.
Mark P. Becker is the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
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