• Issue #47

How strategy can impact the answer to "is college worth it?"

A college diploma on a table that's on a beach with stormy skies overhead.

This past week, The Daily released a podcast episode titled “Is College Worth It?

To briefly summarize the discussion, Michael Barbaro interviews Paul Tough, author of the book, The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us and the recent article, “Americans Are Losing Faith in the Value of College. Whose Fault Is That?” for New York Times Magazine.

You might want to listen to the whole interview. It’s pretty great. But if you’re looking for just a summary, here’s my best attempt:

10 years ago, nearly 98 percent of parents expected their children to attend college, but now roughly half prefer alternative paths. Simultaneously, college enrollment has declined, dropping from over 18 million in 2010 to 15.5 million in 2021.

In calculating the benefits of college, U.S. economists have turned to the model known as the college wage premium, which measures income benefits from a degree. However, with this sharp swing in trust, new calculations have called the college wage premium into question because the college wage premium doesn’t account for education costs or debt.

So, economists in St. Louis introduced the “college wealth premium,” which factors in assets and debts for a more comprehensive view. Results show generational disparities, with college graduates born in the ‘40s-’60s accumulating more wealth over their lifetimes than high school graduates. However, those born after 1980 experience a smaller wealth benefit, and for some, like Black and Latino families, it has nearly completely disappeared due to student debt and high education costs.

Additionally, the discussion goes into depth on how college is more of a gamble. Most of the benefits are seen only if a student finishes a degree. And factors such as the program and school attended make this gamble even more tenuous.

The trouble is that, on the other side, our economy is not set up for a drop in college graduates. One specific economic report projects that our economy will be short by 8.5 million American BA holders by the end of this decade. College remains crucial for better economic prospects, as most rapidly growing jobs for high school graduates offer median salaries below $31,000 a year.

A college diploma on a roulette table's betting area.

The podcast episode makes the case that this is a public policy problem that should be attended to by the federal government. And I am not disagreeing with that. Nevertheless, I think there are some things that higher education administrators and digital strategists should be thinking about. Here is a list of questions at the top of my mind:

  1. How do we better communicate the steps students can take to reduce the cost of an education?
  2. How do we reduce the complexity of financial planning for higher education?
  3. How do we better communicate proactive steps students can take to complete?
  4. How do we make the recovery process easy for the students who struggle or hit stumbling blocks?
  5. When we work with outside vendors for software supporting students’ financial aid decisions and degree planning, how can we collectively advocate for ongoing usability testing and student-focused product management?
  6. Some students know how to play the game. You will always have students who took PSEO classes in high school and know how to reduce their time in college to graduate more quickly with less debt. How do we level the playing field so that all students have equal access to these opportunities and can take advantage of them?
  7. Adults will seek educational advancement opportunities when they can’t make gains with a high school diploma. How do we make higher education accessible and affordable to this audience?
  8. Higher education institutions are made up of people just like any other institution. And some of those people are flawed and make mistakes that impact students. How do we care for the students who have been negatively impacted by mistakes, poor performance, or ethically dubious behavior from staff and faculty?

These issues are bigger than our institutions. And we can’t solve them by just doing our jobs better. But there are some things we can do while we wait for federal policies and standard practices to change. If you look at these questions, many can be addressed by three big skill sets: UX research and design, brand equity building, and market research and analysis.

Take the first five questions. We must continuously improve our operations and communications to provide better, more intuitive service. This will come from UX research and UX design. (I mean, I personally think a high school or PSEO course in personal financial management wouldn’t hurt either: students could build comfortability with topics that are otherwise intimidating. So, when students review their debt burdens and make financial decisions about their future, they won’t encounter these concepts for the first time. But, I digress…).

Questions six and seven are about brand salience. Illuminating opportunities at the right point in time is critical. Students need to not only hear about opportunities. They need to feel prepared to take advantage of them, and they need to understand the value of them. That usually means educating people about those opportunities in advance. But people already have over-taxed cognition, and we know we don’t notice things until they are directly relevant to us. That means this will be an important challenge for higher education digital strategists.

Lastly, we can anticipate the needs of our working adults and our economy through careful market analysis. This means building relationships with other industries, calibrating our offerings to their needs, and, again, communicating the value proposition of our offerings as they relate to the market.

A boat's propeller is visible against a background of stacks of dollar bills.

Internally, we need to convey the necessity of these skill sets and create the space so that our talented professionals can bring them to bear on the operations of our institutions.

Our current political environment doesn’t allow much room for these nuanced and thoughtful policy discussions. So, it may be up to our institutions to carry the weight of this change for the foreseeable future. If so, these moves are imperative to re-establishing trust and maintaining fiscal solvency.

And, if you ever need support in UX research and design, brand research and strategy, or market research and analysis, Bravery Media would be happy to be a partner in this work.

- Kristin Van Dorn