For decades, the intrinsic value of a college education was unquestioned. Going to college was thought to confer economic and social mobility, prestige, worldliness, self-knowledge and moral refinement. It was a rite of passage for some, a portal to a better life for others. Employers recognized the value of the workforce skills of college completers, and their abilities to become part of the nation’s world-class workforce upon credential completion. The value of higher education was assumed.
In recent years, that value proposition has come under assault. The scrutiny isn’t surprising. The cost of college has risen; financial support from the public sector has declined; and student debt has grown to $1 trillion. At the same time, the post-recession economy’s “jobless recovery” has generated what to recent graduates can seem like a paucity of employment opportunities. Students, their families, policy makers and others are asking a fundamental question: What is the value of a higher education experience and is public and private investment worth the cost?
It’s a difficult question that defies easy answers. Post-secondary education is woven into all aspects of community and economy. Examples of benefits attributed to increased levels of educational attainment include: greater workforce productivity and flexibility; higher earnings and more benefits for employees; better health and longer life expectancies; reduced reliance on social services; and increases in civic engagement (Reaping the Benefits: Defining the Public and Private Value of Going to College). Assigning value to an institutional experience or credential can be a challenge, and existing approaches too often default to measures of employment and earnings that fail to capture the broader contribution of college attendance to an individual. Fully measuring what happens to a person after college is no simple matter, and the tendency to revert to data that are already available is understandable. Even discussing something as complex as student learning outcomes is difficult, as any campus undergoing re-accreditation can attest.
The Post-Collegiate Outcomes (PCO) Initiative has developed a strategic framework to guide discussion of student outcomes after college and measurement tools for reporting them. The framework and accompanying toolkit, presented here, are intended to broaden the conversation surrounding post-collegiate outcomes to include both economic and social capital contributions to both individuals and their communities.
The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), in partnership with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) collaborated on the initiative, which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project’s partners assembled subject-matter experts and institutional leaders to create a framework and application tools that will enable colleges and universities, policymakers, and the public to better understand and talk about post-collegiate outcomes in areas such as economic well-being, ongoing personal development, and social and civic engagement.
The Post-Collegiate Outcomes (PCO) Framework and Toolkit consists of several inter-related components. A conceptual framework is the core component of the toolkit. The conceptual framework considers 2 dimensions against which outcomes can be considered. Post collegiate outcomes may be placed anywhere along the first dimension as predominantly a public benefit through predominantly a personal benefit. Similarly, outcomes may be placed independently along the second dimension as predominantly an economic benefit through predominantly a human capital benefit. Understanding where along the dimensions the outcome falls will provide a better understanding of who is benefiting and how. The framework further defines important dimensions that users of the framework should consider when measuring outcomes across all the dimensions. Dimensions such as the audience for outcome measures, the appropriate level of analysis when considering an outcome, and how long after leaving an institution the outcome should be measured.
In addition to the framework, the toolkit contains a series of Stakeholder Perspectives; two in-depth explorations of dimensions for developing outcome metrics; a discussion of the policy implications; and next steps for refining the Framework more completely. The development of the framework and the accompanying tools are an important first step toward the creation of common metrics and indicators for reporting a more comprehensive set of post-collegiate outcomes.