The completion agenda has been effective in shifting the national conversation on postsecondary attainment from access to completion, as reflected in the measurable completion goals set to be achieved by Lumina Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Obama Administration, and numerous states. This is tremendous progress, but for low income Americans who seek postsecondary credentials to secure employment and advance in our economy, it is not enough to simply complete.
Several recent studies from the Center for Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University on African American and Latino students’ degrees and earnings found that both of these student populations are overrepresented in majors that result in credentials that earn low wages. The study findings are incongruent with the generally accepted notion that college completion results in economic opportunity and mobility. The findings make clear that completion of a college credential is not enough to ensure these economic gains. Comprehensive advising strategies such as those that the Completion by Design colleges are working to implement are essential if students are to make smart decisions about their academic and career choices.
The connection between credentials and earnings
Completing degrees that only provide access to low paying wages has major implications for economic opportunity and economic mobility. People who earn low wages will struggle to earn enough money to cover their basic living expenses, let alone save enough to provide some semblance of economic security. Choosing programs of study wisely is particularly important for students whose primary and immediate interest in completing a college credential is gainful employment and economic mobility. In actual fact, students, particularly those who are low income and first generation, are unlikely to be able to navigate the complexity of the connection between credentials and earnings on their own
Helping Students Navigate an Increasingly Complex Labor Market
There are some immediate things that can be done to help students understand the impact of their selection of a program of study on their prospects for employment and earnings. First, we need to more fully acknowledge that while postsecondary credentials are necessary to thrive in our economy, there are dramatic differences in the payoff of those credentials. Factors like socio-economic status, race, gender, and geography come into play in determining the payoff of a postsecondary credential. The reasons for this are many and beyond the scope of this blog, but the point is that more attention needs to be paid to what completion does for whom, so that students can make informed choices about their postsecondary options.
Second, given the less-than straightforward relationship between degrees and earnings, it is important that students and their families have better access to user-friendly information on the earnings they can expect from different degrees. There is a growing set of free resources designed to provide information on the connection between degrees and earnings to consumers. The College Score Card, a consumer information web tool developed by the U.S. Department of Education, is one example. Students and their families can go to www.collegescorecard.ed.gov and perform searches on multiple types of degrees at two-year and four-year colleges and find information on the annual cost of programs, the graduation rate, and the median salary of graduates after 10 years.
Third and finally, it is important to identify and disseminate successful efforts to modernize student advising and counseling. Navigating the complex connection between degrees and earnings requires a redesign of colleges’ advising and counseling functions. The central tenet of guided pathways reform is that students are supported to select a program of study. To do this in a way that provides the level of guidance sufficient for students to have the information they need to make smart decisions about the full range of their postsecondary options, however, significant reforms are needed.
A key element of redesign is to increase the capacity of advisors through robust professional development and to extend advising beyond the front end of the student experience so that supports are provided throughout students’ college experience. This is not an easy task. Many advisors are part-time, have minimal experience, and have limited knowledge of the full range of postsecondary options colleges provide. Next generation advising strategies will need to address these gaps in order to help students to make smart decisions about degrees and earnings that maximize their chances for employment and economic mobility. Completion alone is not enough.