Office of Planning and Budgeting

As a recent post discussed, if you attend college, you are more likely to earn more money. But, as you might imagine, the financial value of higher education depends on what program you choose and where.

Information on the annual earnings of students from different programs and institutions is exactly what Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat of Oregon, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican of Florida, hope to provide. Their recently-introduced “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act” proposes creating a state-based, individual-level data system linking the average costs and graduation rates of specific programs and institutions to their graduates’ accrued debt and annual earnings.

Although useful, Senator Wyden acknowledged that such information is limited and that focusing on financial indicators alone could undermine the importance of liberal arts—whose graduates may not earn large salaries right after college. He stated that the bill’s intention is “to empower people to make choices.” However, “people” include not just students, but policy makers—such as Florida’s Governor Rick Scott who sparked controversy last October when he asserted that state money should go to job-oriented fields, rather than fields like anthropology which, he said, do not serve the state’s vital interest.

Regardless of the bill’s success, about half of the states already have the ability to link postsecondary academic records with labor data. And some, such as Tennessee, have already done so. Here in Washington, the Education Research and Data Center is in the process of connecting certain employment and enrollment data for schools, such as the UW, to analyze in the coming months.

All this begs the question: Is college chiefly for personal economic gain?

A recent report by the College Board highlights both the financial and nonfinancial payoffs of college. Additionally, David A. Reidy, head of the philosophy department at University of Tennessee Knoxville, stated in a recent Chronicle article that four-year degrees, particularly in liberal-arts, are not solely for job training. “The success of the American democratic experiment depends significantly on a broadly educated citizenry, capable of critical thinking, cultural understanding, moral analysis and argument,” he wrote. Philosophy and other core disciplines help nurture such a citizenry, he continued, “And the value there is incalculable.”

Today, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) published a report summarizing enrollment, price of attendance, and completions data submitted by all Title IV institutions to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) in fall 2011.

Here are some of the findings:

  • Between 2009-10 and 2011-12, the average undergraduate tuition and required fees at 4-year public institutions nationwide (after adjusting for inflation) increased more for in-state students (9 percent increase) than for out-of-state students (6 percent increase). This is consistent with the UW’s experience, where the tuition increase (after adjusting for inflation) was 31.1% ($2,509.05) for residents and 9.8% ($2,509.55) for non-residents over that period.
  • In 2010-11, of the 25,645,985 undergraduate students enrolled in Title IV institutions in the nation, 50.9% attended 4-year institutions – of these, 59.7% attended public institutions. The public share of the 3,876,611 graduate students enrolled in Title IV institutions was 47.6%.
  • Females constitute 57.0% of the undergraduate and 60.2% of the graduate students in the nation. They also account for 58% of the degrees granted by all 4-year institutions.

The US Department of Education released their second annual ranking of universities by costUsers can rank institutions by tuition rate (sticker price) or by a net cost of attendance measure. Institutions are also ranked by annual percentage increases in these measures. The Department presents these data as a tool to help students and families find good educational and financial fits when selecting an institution, and also aims to publically identify and shame institutions that increase tuition the most.

While any attempt to centralize and simplify higher education data to facilitate easier consumer evaluation and comparison is an important effort, there are many potential unintended consequences relating to both the measures used and in aggregating this type of information across such a large, varied set of institutions. Economists Robert Archibald and David Feldman address some of these problems in an Inside Higher Ed piece published today.

A few weeks ago, the National Research Council’s Panel on Measuring Higher Education Productivity published its 192-page report on Improving Measurement of Productivity in Higher Education, marking the culmination of a three-year, $900,000 effort funded by the Lumina Foundation and involving 15 higher education policy experts nationwide.

In explaining the need for a new productivity measure, the Panel made several key observations:

  • It’s all about incentives: Institutional behavior is dynamic and directly related to the incentives embedded within measurement systems. As such, policymakers must ensure that the incentives in the measurement system genuinely support the behaviors that society wants from higher education institutions and are structured so that measured performance is the result of authentic success rather than manipulative behaviors.
  • Costs and productivity are two different issues: Focusing on reducing the cost of credit hours or credentials invites the obvious solutions: substitute cheap teachers for expensive ones, increase class sizes, and eliminate departments that serve small numbers of students unless they somehow offset their costs. In contrast, focusing on productivity assesses whether changes in strategy are producing more quality-adjusted output (credit hours or credentials) per quality-adjusted unit of input (faculty, equipment, laboratory space, etc.).
  • Using accountability measures without context is akin to reading a legend without looking at the map: Different types of institutions have different objectives, so the productivity of a research university cannot be compared to that of a liberal arts or community college, not least because they serve very different student populations who have different abilities, goals, and aspirations. The panel notes that, among the most important contextual variables that must be controlled for when comparing productivity measures are institutional selectivity, program mix, size, and student demographics.

The Panel also contributed a thorough documentation of the difficulties involved in defining productivity in higher education. From time to time, it is helpful to remind ourselves that, while it may be “possible to count and assign value to goods such as cars and carrots because they are tangible and sold in markets, it is harder to tabulate abstractions like knowledge and health because they are neither tangible nor sold in markets”. The diversity of outputs produced by the institutions, the myriad inputs used in its activities, quality change over time and quality variation across institutions and systems all contribute to the complexity of the task.

Despite these difficulties, the Panel concluded that the higher education policy arena would be better served if it used a measure of productivity whose limitations were clearly documented than if it used no measure of productivity at all. It proposed a basic productivity metric measuring the instructional activities of a college or university: a simple ratio of outputs over inputs for a given period. Its preferred measure of output was the sum of credit hours produced, adjusted to reflect the added value that credit hours gain when they form a completed degree. Its measure of input was a combination of labor (faculty, staff) and non-labor (buildings and grounds, materials, and supplies) factors of production used for instruction, adjusted to allow for comparability. The Panel was careful to link all components of its formula to readily available data published in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) so that its suggested measure may easily be calculated and used. It also specified how improvements to the IPEDS data structure might help produce more complete productivity measures.

The key limitation in the Panel’s proposal – fully acknowledged in the report – is that it does not account for the quality of inputs or outputs. As the Panel notes, when attention is overwhelmingly focused on quantitative metrics, there is a high risk that a numeric goal will be pursued at the expense of quality. There is also a risk that quantitative metrics will be compared across institutions without paying heed to differences in the quality of input or output. The report summarizes some of the work that has been done to help track quality, but concludes that the state of research is not advanced enough to allow any quality weighting factors to be included in its productivity formula.

While readers may lament the Panel’s relegation of measures of quality to further research, especially given the time and resources invested in its effort, the report remains a very useful tool in understanding the issues involved in assessing productivity in higher education and provides valuable food for thought for policymakers and administrators alike.

Excelencia in Education has produced a report that summarizes college attainment rates within the Hispanic population in all fifty states. The report is intended to highlight the importance of increasing higher education participation and graduation rates among Hispanics if the US is to reach its ambitious attainment goals.

According to the report, Latinos are expected to be 20 percent of the US population by 2020, and because they have a median age that is significantly younger than average (27 compared to 40), over 25 percent of the 18-29 year old population. Yet in 2011, only 21 percent of Latino adults had an AA degree or higher compared to 57 percent of Asians, 44 percent of Whites, and 30 percent of Blacks.

The report’s Washington State profile shows a sizable Hispanic population in Washington and a large attainment gap:

  • Washington has the 12th largest Latino population in the US
  • The median age among Latinos in Washington is 24 compared to 40 among other groups
  • Latinos currently comprise 16% of the K-12 population in Washington
  • 18% of Latino adults (age 25-64) in Washington State have attained an AA degree or higher compared to 43% among others

This report makes even clearer what many employers and higher education officials and experts have known for years: there is much progress to be made in increasing college attainment within the Hispanic population, and as a significant and growing percentage of the  overall population, such gains will be a key factor in whether the US can meet the ambitious goals it has set for college attainment.

AAUP released its annual academic salary information this week. The data show, once again, that faculty salaries have not kept up with inflation, that they have not increased significantly over many years, and that the pay gap between professors at public and private institutions continues to grow.

Although these data do not address the rapidly increasing costs of benefits (healthcare especially), they do make clear that the growing cost of tuition is not primarily driven by increasing faculty salaries, a popular argument. Don’t expect that explanation to fall out of favor, however, as previous years of data have seemed to make no impact on its prevalence.

At the beginning of the economic downturn in late 2008, a higher than expected number of Americans turned to higher education, leading to a 7.1 percent increase in college enrollment for 2009. This phenomenon is typical of recessions as many need to refresh their qualifications and/or increase their skill sets when faced with a volatile job market. A new NCES report finds that while enrollment increased again in 2010, it went up by at a more modest rate, 2.8 percent. Some other interesting findings from the latest NCES data include:

  • For first-time freshmen, one-year retention rates were 72 percent for full-time students, but only 44 percent for part-time students.
  • Public four-years got 19 percent of their funding from tuition dollars, while private non-profits and for-profits relied on tuition for 33 percent and 91 percent of their revenues, respectively.
  • The average six-year graduation rate for full-time students across all four-year schools, public and private, was 58 percent in 2004.
  • In 2009-2010, 82 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates received financial aid. Of those students receiving grant aid, the average net price (sticker price minus grant aid) of attending a public 4-year university was $10,200 (the net price was $16,700 at private non-profits and $23,800 at private for-profits).
  • Men made up a slightly higher proportion of enrollments in 2009 than they did in 2008, 42.8 percent versus 42.6 percent respectively.

To take a look at the report and data, click here. Find additional analysis in this Inside Higher Ed article.

Data released by the Census Bureau yesterday shows that 30 percent of Americans aged 25 and over held a Bachelor’s degree or more in 2011, an unprecedented level of higher education attainment. The percentage of Bachelor’s degree holders has increased steadily from less than 25 percent in 1998. While this is encouraging news, some warn that three problems remain: racial and gender inequality, highly differentiated earnings based on choice of major, and persistently low attainment levels in comparison to the rest of the world.

Though all racial and ethnic minorities have increased their share of Bachelor’s degrees earned, the level of educational attainment is highly stratified by race. 50 percent of Asian Americans, 34 percent of white people 20 percent of African Americans and 14 percent of Hispanic Americans 25 years and older held Bachelor’s degrees in 2011. Hispanic Americans have, however, increased their degree attainment by 80 percent since 2001. While women have overtaken men in the number of Bachelor’s degrees earned, they still lag behind in the number of doctorate degrees attained: 1.9 million for men versus 1.2 million for women. Encouragingly, the number of women attaining doctorate degrees has increased by 90 percent over the last ten years.

Some caution that majors matter: some studies show that a worker with an associate’s degree in engineering will make an average of $4,257 per month while workers with bachelor’s degrees in the liberal arts or education will make $4,000 and $3,417, respectively. They argue that higher amounts of bachelor’s degrees will not be very useful unless they translate into higher earnings for workers in the long run.

Finally, despite an increase in higher education attainment, the United States is nowhere close to being the world leader in educational achievement: Canada, Japan and South Korea occupy those positions.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development the US is now ranked 16th internationally in terms of degrees earned, down from 12th in 2009.

Despite an encouraging increase in educational attainment in 2011, there is still more work to be done to ensure America’s higher education system reaches more students. To read more about the Census Bureau’s findings, check out Inside Higher Ed, The Washington Post, the Census Bureau’s press release or the original data.

A new report put out by the National Science Foundation examines math and science education at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary level. In general, the news is sobering: elementary and secondary proficiency in science and math is languishing below 40 percent nationwide. Chapter 8 of the report focuses on state indicators, featuring state-by-state breakdowns of science and math education. Important indicators include the number of Bachelor’s degrees conferred, the proportion of degrees in science and engineering (S&E) fields, state expenditures on higher education, and the prevalence of S&E jobs in the workforce. Interesting findings include:

  • In 2009, 1.6 million bachelor’s degrees were conferred in the United States, up 29 percent since 2000. Of these degrees, more than 501,000 were in S&E fields. In Washington State, 32.9 percent of degrees conferred were S&E degrees.
  • During 2010, the annual sticker price for a public 4-year education was $15,014, which represents a 43 percent increase since 2000 (after adjusting for inflation). This does not represent net price, since this number does not include financial aid.
  • In 2009, undergraduate education at a state institution consumed 35.7 percent of a Washington resident’s disposable income. Note that this number does not account for the 20 percent tuition hike in 2010.
  • State funding for major public research universities per student enrolled in 2000 was $10,107, which dropped to $8,815 in 2009.
  • In Washington, 32.5 percent of 25-44 year olds hold a bachelor’s degree.
  • 5.83 percent of Washington’s residents in 2009 were employed in S&E fields, up from 5.16 percent in 2000.
  • Washington has one of the highest rates of patents awarded per worker in S&E occupations in the US—28.2 patents per 1000 S&E workers.

The report indicates that research is flourishing and that Washington is increasingly awarding more degrees in S&E fields, but also that state funding for higher education and affordability have decreased dramatically. We will explore this report more in future posts. To read more about the report, check out the Higher Ed Chronicle post or read the full report.

As we continue to experience a very slow recovery from a deep recession, the ideas of long-time critics of modern, inclusive American higher education who question the value of college for many have gained traction and blossomed into widespread public speculation about whether undergraduate education might be the next economic bubble to threaten the US economy. We explore this topic in the latest OPB brief and hold that, in the context of data, the ‘bubble’ metaphor, though effective at capturing public attention in an economic climate characterized by fear and uncertainty, is ultimately inaccurate, misleading, and harmful.

We would love to hear your feedback on this topic!

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