Higher education leaders and the community at large are often guilty of believing that the strategy for social mobility follows students is a simple linear design: You decide to pursue something and to do so, you pursue a college degree. Once you earn that degree, you pursue a profession.
However, Bellwether, a nonprofit dedicated to equitable student success, wages higher education as a whole is due for a remodeling that eliminates the students’ need to make life-altering decisions at step one that will affect their quality of life indefinitely. Sometimes it takes learning from a profession to understand what one actually wants to pursue academically, and, as a result, professionally.
“An Investment, Not a Gamble: Creating More Equitable and Effective Postsecondary Pathways” explores three fundamental trends higher education can keep in mind to regain students’ trust on a cost-heavy journey and recapture their valuation of a degree.
This report is one of two newly released publications launching Bellwether’s Admission, a beta initiative that will bring together a diverse group of stakeholders to chart a course toward a more equitable and effective postsecondary system.
Empower choice at every step of the process
These are the three fundamental elements Bellwether believes students need to make dynamic and effective choices. The more prepared they are, the more they will frame their journey into higher education as an investment rather than a risk.
1. Access to timely, credible information
Students need to have access to ten different elements of information that assists them with answering two things: what they are capable of pursuing and what pathways are available to achieve this. Students need an honest assessment of their intelligence, passion and monetary desires by accessing resources on aptitude tests, labor market demand data and short- and long-term earning potential for a specific industry.
With an understanding of their pursuits, students can research different pathways. When looking into different higher education pathways, potential students should have a transparent knowledge of the true cost of pursuing a degree, demographic completion rates, and the likelihood of employment for that specific pathway.
2. Social capital of navigation
However, the information provided to students doesn’t mean anything if there aren’t strong support networks to provide students the insight. Specifically, marginalized students lack access to advising resources that are culturally inclusive and unbiased. Just one strong navigator can help, Bellwether believes, and technology can help.
3. Innovative pathways to higher education
The kind of information students have access to and the network of resources and individuals assisting with providing that information is limited by the quality of education that higher education is willing to provide.
Credentials, badges and assessments should not be relegated to a “Plan B” for students if they have the potential of providing high-quality, sought-after skills. They can also access students who cannot attend the traditional two- to four-year track. However, the current ambiguity on which ones can be trusted is hindering students from being able to reskill or upskill at their discretion.
An ailing system
Only 51% of students who began a four-year degree in 2012 completed a degree within eight years at that institution, according to NCES. It’s primarily due to these three reasons, which are symptoms of the currently rigid higher ed system.
Inequitable completion rates
59% of Americans who came from the top income quartile earned a bachelor’s degree by 24 years old compared to just 15% from the lowest quartile. Similarly, 20% of first-generation college students earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to 49% of continuing-generation students.
ROI on different degrees varies wildly
An analysis by Third Way found that of the 25,691 bachelor’s degree programs it analyzed, a quarter of its students didn’t pay back their costs in a decade. Even worse, 10% never achieved a return on investment.
Costs outweighing aid
Since 2008, student debt has skyrocketed more than $1 trillion, totaling $1.76 trillion as of Q3 2022, mainly due to median U.S. household income and Pell Grant support being unable to keep up with the rising sticker costs of a full-time undergraduate degree.