higher education boot camp session

Clockwise from top left: Austin Reid, NCSL's senior legislative director for federal education policy; Mamie Voight from the Institute for Higher Education Policy; and Sandy Baum from the Urban Institute.

The Risks and Rewards of Higher Education

By Andrew Smalley | Aug. 11, 2021 | State Legislatures NewsPrint

With millions of college students gearing up for the fall semester, many students are returning to campus as questions about the value of a college degree continue to drive policy discussions and affect decisions for students and families across the country.

NCSL’s Austin Reid, Senior Legislative Director for federal education policy, interviewed Mamie Voight from the Institute for Higher Education Policy and Sandy Baum from the Urban Institute this week during NCSL’s Base Camp. The session, The Risks and Rewards of Higher Education, discussed the complicated landscape of value and outcomes in higher education.

Voight, who co-authored a recent report from the Postsecondary Value Commission said the findings of that commission show a clear value for college education, but with important caveats.

“It was very clear through the commission’s research that college is worth it,” Voight said. “We also found though that the value that higher education delivers to students really depends on their race, ethnicity, gender and income and that’s a huge problem for everyone and for society as a whole.”

Baum agreed that higher education provides a valuable return on investment for most students.

“Most students do capture the rewards of higher education. For most people, it pays off very well in financial terms,” Baum explained. “But we have a real crisis in too many people starting on paths that they can’t complete.”

Challenges that impede completion have been amplified by the pandemic as nearly 60% of students experienced basic needs insecurity during the past year, according to a survey from the Hope Center.

“We have to think about the students who drove to parking lots in order to get Wi-Fi reception to try and work from their cars because they don’t have broadband access at home,” Voight said. “Students who get an unexpected parking ticket could be the difference between if they stay in or not.”

Both Voight and Baum explored strategies for institutions and policymakers to promote completion and maximize value for students. 

“On-the-job training is really important, and colleges have become increasingly aware that it is really important to have internships,” Baum said. “You can’t just draw a line between the classroom and the work world.”

The panel also noted the significant challenges facing prospective college students.

“Right now, we ask students to make this biggest decision in their life thus far, in many cases, without providing them with adequate answers to questions about which programs are going to pay off?” Voight said.

“We need to make sure that we don’t just have another website with a lot of information on it,” Baum explained. “We really need to invest in actively giving people guidance.”

Baum also highlighted strategies such as the 15 to Finish Initiative, which promotes students taking a full credit load to complete a bachelor’s degree in four years as opposed to taking extra time to complete a degree program. While a college student is considered to be enrolled on a full-time basis for student financial aid purposes taking 12 credit hours per semester, college students must take 15 credits a semester if they want to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in four years or an associate’s degree in two years.

“That extra year is very expensive both for the student and the state. You look at the debt of people who graduate after five years, they are out of the labor force for an extra year, it is incredibly expensive and then also life happens, so they are less likely to complete.” Baum said. Voight noted that these efforts should be paired with a focus on affordability since many students enroll in fewer credits in order to work while in school.

Voight also noted the importance of utilizing need-based financial aid to support students.

“Need-based financial aid is a very direct, targeted way to support students who probably couldn’t go to college without that support or would not have as many choices on the table without that financial support.” Voight said. “There is no one silver bullet here, it is not only the fed’s responsibility or only the state’s responsibility. It has to be shared responsibility because it is a big challenge, it is something that impacts people across the nation.”

Andrew Smalley is a policy specialist in NCSL's Education Program,