A Tool to Compare Colleges

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation unveils a tool to help college leaders and policy makers carry out its recommendations on how institutions can increase equity and attainment.

November 4, 2021
(Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored a 115-page report in May that called for the release of more information to help students make better choices about where to go to college, in the hopes of eliminating "completion gaps" and "removing affordability as an impediment to postsecondary value."

The report noted that these goals very much relate to inequities in education by race, gender and class. "Without explicit attention to racial, socioeconomic, and gender equity, postsecondary education will continue to sustain and exacerbate inequalities, but a more equitable postsecondary education system can build a more just society," it says. "We urgently need to transform the nation’s postsecondary system to ensure value for the very populations most impacted by racial and gender violence and the coronavirus pandemic and the dire economic -- and life-or-death -- consequences they impart to marginalized communities."

One question about the work of the Postsecondary Value Commission, which produced the report, has been how it will achieve those goals. Today, the Gates Foundation launches a new tool, the Equitable Value Explorer, to help colleges and policy makers act on the report's recommendations. (The Gates Foundation has provided funds to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of value in higher education.)

“For higher education to generate economic mobility and disrupt broader societal inequities, institutions must ‘know their numbers,’ and policy makers at all levels must use those numbers to implement data-informed, evidence-based policies that promote equitable value, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and underrepresented Asian American and Pacific Islander students, and women,” said Mamie Voight, interim president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy and managing partner of the Postsecondary Value Commission. “We know the Equitable Value Explorer can help institutions use data to provide quality, affordable credentials that offer students a better living and a better life -- all in the interest of advancing the commission’s objective of promoting a more fair and just society.”

The tool, based on the College Scorecard, allows for easy comparisons of colleges on a variety of factors. For instance, it includes the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants (as an indicator of how the institution serves low-income populations). Readers will find out that Harvard University has a Pell rate of 11 percent, while nearby Bunker Hill Community College has a Pell rate of 48 percent. But that's just the start of the comparisons. There is also cumulative net price, completion rate, undergraduate enrollment by race, percentage of STEM majors and more.

As the tool itself highlights, a major limitation in existing data is the lack of median earnings measures 10 years after undergraduate enrollment by race or gender. "Because College Scorecard earnings are not yet disaggregated by race/ethnicity or gender, these thresholds are shown only for institutions with at least 50 percent of their undergraduate enrollment from that subgroup for more accurate comparison to the thresholds," the tool says.

There are lots of comparisons to make. Consider the Community College of Denver and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College (in Salisbury, N.C.), which are identical (at 39 percent) in the share of students receiving Pell Grants. Rowan-Cabarrus has a completion rate that is twice that of the Community College of Denver (26 versus 13 percent). Denver is by far the more racially diverse institution, with only 32 percent white enrollment versus 59 percent at Rowan-Cabarrus. On earnings 10 years after enrolling, Denver is up, $33,359 to $25,446.

Voight was very cautious in describing the salary data in a briefing on the new tool. On the one hand, it is obviously of interest. But she said the new tool was not intended to punish institutions for their students' salaries (or any other statistic that is shared).

The tool isn't presented as having all the answers. When you hit a page for searching institutions, you are flashed with three reminders:

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  • "Context matters -- While assessing institutional performance, users must consider an institution’s context, including the institutional mission, state policy and financial support, local and regional labor market conditions, and history."
  • "The data are incomplete -- This tool leverages the best available public data, but those data are incomplete, so results should be interpreted with great caution."
  • "The data tool displays outcomes but does not diagnose causes -- Due to data limitations, and the complexity of measuring postsecondary value, this data tool and the underlying data are designed to inform institutional improvement efforts, not to develop institutional rankings, penalize institutions, or make causal claims about value."

The purpose of the data is "to improve transparency in higher education outcomes, and drive a discussion around value for the sake of improvement,” said Kimberly Dancy, a research associate at IHEP.

Still, one could predict which colleges don't look good in the salary figures. Among them are many community colleges and historically Black colleges. Of course, those colleges educate many students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Where the tool can have the most impact, Voight and others said, is for policy makers comparing all the public institutions in their state, or with comparable institutions in other states.

Prospective students and counselors can use the tool, but it wasn't designed for them. And the Gates Foundation doesn't expect students to be a major source of traffic to the site.

University of Texas Statistics

One feature of the Equitable Value Explorer is to draw attention to what is not yet available in terms of data. The University of Texas system has a widely praised tool that provides data that the Gates report argued should be available nationally.

"The University of Texas System has provided robust, nuanced data to demonstrate the full utility of the Postsecondary Value Framework. The functionality of the UT portion of the Explorer is similar to that of the main data tool but provides additional detail, including median earnings and the exact percentage of students passing each threshold reported separately by program, completion status and for each demographic subgroup, one, three, five, 10, and 15 years after students leave the institution," says the Gates website. The new tool includes the UT data for the Texas institutions.

"The more granular UT analyses shown in this portion of the Equitable Value Explorer should serve as a roadmap for institutional leaders hoping to use internal data to supplement publicly available information to improve their understanding of equitable value generated by their schools," the website says.

Other Measures of Value

As the Gates report said, there are many measures of value beyond purely income. To give but one example, many of the goals of the foundation won't be realized without more people going into elementary and secondary school teaching. And social work. And racism isn't about to disappear, so differences in the incomes of people by race will continue.

Voight stressed that the release of the Equitable Value Explorer was one step of the process, and there would be more to come in the months ahead.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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