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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is backing a new panel to scrutinize the value of postsecondary credentials, a move coming as college prices and returns are under intense scrutiny but that is seen by some as playing catch-up to the current political moment.

A 30-member panel of higher education leaders, business representatives and foundation experts will look at the value of degrees and post-high school certificates. It will examine ways to measure economic outcomes for students earning certificates and degrees -- outcomes that could include postcollegiate earnings and the ability to repay debt, earnings premiums for degree earners or certificate earners, and economic mobility after college.

The new panel comes as families and policy makers around the country turn their attention to the return on investment in higher education, and as the federal government moves to give consumers more data to evaluate that equation. The White House is pushing toward releasing program-level earnings data, and reauthorization of the Higher Education Act has been percolating on Capitol Hill.

Gates CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann is co-chairing the group, called the Commission on the Value of Postsecondary Education, or the Postsecondary Value Commission. Its other co-chair is Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

The commission's members:

  • Brian Bridges, UNCF Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute
  • Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce
  • Michelle Asha Cooper, Institute for Higher Education Policy
  • José Luis Cruz, Lehman College, City University of New York
  • Sue Desmond-Hellmann, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Zakiya Smith Ellis, State of New Jersey
  • Ivelisse Estrada, communications and social impact strategist
  • Nichole Francis Reynolds, Mastercard
  • John Friedman, Brown University
  • Mildred García, American Association of State Colleges and Universities
  • Paul Glastris, The Washington Monthly
  • Jillian Klein, Strategic Education Inc.
  • Janice Lachance, American Geophysical Union
  • Teresa Lubbers, Indiana Commission for Higher Education
  • Elisabeth Mason, Stanford Technology, Opportunity and Poverty Lab
  • Sean McGarvey, North America’s Building Trades Unions
  • Ted Mitchell, American Council on Education
  • Sahar Mohammadzadeh, Harvard University/Prichard Committee on Student Excellence
  • Marc Morial, National Urban League
  • Gloria Nemerowicz, Yes We Must Coalition
  • Eloy Ortiz Oakley, California Community Colleges
  • Cheryl Oldham, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
  • Laura Perna, University of Pennsylvania
  • Mark Schneider, U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences
  • Michele Siqueiros, Campaign for College Opportunity
  • Margaret Spellings, Texas 2036
  • Luis Talavera, Arkansas State University
  • Ivory Toldson, Howard University
  • Andy Van Kleunen, National Skills Coalition
  • Belle Wheelan, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

“We definitely are hoping that it will affect the higher ed reauthorization act, and look at the way we’re looking at things like Pell, and federal and state match,” García said during a recent conference call to discuss the effort. “We are hoping that this commission can continue its work over the year and at the same time inform the policy makers of what our findings are.”

Commission leaders say they won’t be solely focused on money. They’ll also acknowledge noneconomic returns to higher education like creative and critical thinking skills, as well as greater civic participation.

But the commission’s primary charges are tied to economic value.

Its task is to propose a definition of postsecondary value that institutions can use and to create a framework for measuring how programs at colleges and universities create value for different students. It will also make recommendations for furthering the understanding of value within and outside postsecondary education.

In other words, the commission is supposed to help colleges and universities examine how well they are improving students’ economic opportunity while also aiding policy makers who are trying to measure the returns on public investments in higher education. In addition, it’s supposed to help students and families evaluate where and what to study after high school.

“Our goal is to uncomplicate the connection between higher education and economic opportunity,” Desmond-Hellmann said. “People are talking about jobs in this country, so we want to get everybody involved, from students, families, schools, policy makers, so that people who are making life choices can make choices that are best for them.”

The commission held its first meeting in April. It’s scheduled to meet several more times and finish its work by the middle of next year.

Members of the panel include college and university leaders, researchers, business leaders, community leaders, policy makers, and students. Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, is its managing partner.

“We want to bring together data on outcomes like employment, earnings and economic mobility,” she said. “Secondly, we want to show how those data play out across race and income and gender, which has not been done before in a comprehensive way. That’s how it’s going to be different than some of the things that you’ve already seen.”

At least one member of the commission sees it as Gates incorporating the latest policy developments and the current political focus.

“The basic story here is that Gates is playing catch-up,” said Anthony Carnevale, research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Carnevale has argued that President Trump’s executive order on program-level data fits into a bipartisan move toward examining earnings data instead of just focusing on degree completion. Gates has traditionally looked under the hood of colleges and universities, working directly with institutions to change their practices, he said. But Carnevale doesn’t believe higher education is going to change without outside pressure.

That outside pressure has arrived as lawmakers, governors and reformers have stopped focusing as heavily on completion and paid more attention to outcomes and earnings.

“That’s another conversation that takes you outside of both K-12 institutions and higher education institutions,” Carnevale said. “The real action in education reform now is connecting the dots, say, middle school through high school and into higher ed, and connecting with the labor market.”

Gates declined to comment on the idea that the foundation was playing catch-up. It could easily have argued that it's traditionally addressed many of the individual areas Carnevale was discussing. But one of Carnevale's points was that foundations generally are having to break down silos between different areas.

Desmond-Hellmann did address the question of why Gates is undertaking this work when she spoke during the conference call to announce the commission. More than any time she can remember, students and families are now asking if college is worthwhile, she said. But Gates has a "fundamental belief" that opportunities and financial security are linked to higher education.

"That means for Americans today, education after high school is not a luxury, it’s a necessity," she said. "Our foundation’s learned a lot in the last 10 years about getting more students to and through college, especially low-income students and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults. But we still don’t know enough about the benefits that education beyond high school brings."

Other members of the commission pointed out that its work comes at a time when the public is increasingly questioning the value of a postsecondary education and that many consider enrolling in higher education institutions through the lens of the economic opportunities they are likely to create.

“People throw the term around a lot, ‘credential of value,’” said Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Depending on who it is, you can press them, and it’s like, ‘Oh, what are you talking about when you said that?’ It is hard. And I do think a lot of the assumptions are being questioned. Is the four-year degree the gold standard? Can we get to a place where it’s not about the piece of paper but it’s about what you know and are able to do?”

It is important that the panel has representatives from the business community, she added.

Previously, Oldham served in the U.S. Department of Education during President George W. Bush’s administration, when Margaret Spellings was secretary of education. Spellings is also a member of the Postsecondary Value Commission.

“What we owe our consumers is more ability to vote with their feet, and that means we need more information,” said Spellings, who recently stepped down as president of the University of North Carolina system and is now a senior consultant with Texas 2036, a group focused on public policy. “The data is coming.”

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