Higher education is a ladder to social and economic mobility and stability, and learning certain skills like leadership, critical thinking, problem-solving and communication, can make the difference in a graduate feeling their time in postsecondary education was both worth the expense and helped them achieve life goals.
While these skills are shown to positively impact the lives of graduates, not all graduates experience the same economic benefits. Female graduates are less likely than their male peers to earn a family-sustaining wage after graduation. First-generation students are less likely to earn over $50,000 after graduation, and Black graduates are the least likely to experience both economic and noneconomic benefits after acquiring these skills. These marginalized students are less likely to agree that the cost of their education was worth its price.
These are the findings of a nationally representative survey of over 3,200 alumni with bachelor’s degrees who graduated within the last 20 years, as found by Strada Education Network, a research and philanthropy nonprofit helping students complete postsecondary education or training. Their report, Value Beyond the Degree: Alumni Perspectives on How College Experiences Improve Their Lives, recommends that institutions engage with employers to erase equity gaps in post-graduation outcomes, identify high-value skills and ensure students know they are learning them, and acquire more post-graduation data to understand student outcomes beyond completion.
“We hope that colleges and universities really start to hold themselves responsible for what happens to students after they graduate, to measure it, track it, disaggregate it, to see where the inequities are in outcomes,” said Dr. Nichole Torpey-Saboe, director of research at Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights and one of the report’s researchers. “Focus on the skills you’re helping students develop both inside and outside the classroom and how to make those experiences equally accessible for all students.”
The report confirms that while skills in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) correlate with high-earning post-graduation careers, other broad-base skills are also connected with successful post-graduation outcomes. Many of these skills are acquired in collegiate organizations or internships, which working or caregiving students often do not have the time capital to participate in. Torpey-Saboe said it is important that faculty find ways to embed these kinds of skills directly into the coursework students already take.
“But even when students say they’re developing those skills, Black alumni aren’t seeing the income gains everyone else is, and that’s devastating,” said Torpey-Saboe, adding that some institutions are working to change this by connecting minoritized and first-generation students with representatives in their field before graduation. Other institutions, she said, tell employers who come to their campus to recruit a minimum number of diverse scholars.
“You have to hold employers to a higher standard if they’re going to have access [to your campus], make them partners in seeing how you can give students a fair opportunity,” said Torpey-Saboe.
Students also need to be able to articulate the specific ways in which they have been trained in new skillsets, something Torpey-Saboe said can come in the form of explicit transcripts with certain skills tagged or assignments explained.
“This helps students have an understanding of and a motivation behind what they’re doing,” said Torpey-Saboe.
Dr. Keith Look, vice president of education solutions at Territorium, a company that uses technology to make skill acquisition and learning more accessible, agreed that this kind of transparency is crucial for students, who need to understand just how each moment in their higher education career prepares them for the future. He likened this process to physical exercise, the difference between the weight one is able to lift when they first start out versus months after training.
“Fitness is skills-achievement oriented—we can measure in small increments. We are in the process of translating our learning experiences to be similar, so that even if [students] stop out at some point, it’s not a zero-sum game,” said Look. “We’re not very good at teaching our learners they’re making progress.”
Look said higher education can make students feel like the only reward is the degree. Instead, asset-based education connects the dots for students, revealing how they acquired a new and important skill.
“This is an ability—that in itself is an achievement that no one else can take away from you,” said Look. “We need to do a better job of demarcating, showing students their growth.”
Look added that this understanding can be part of an experiential resume, which shows how well a former student performs a critical task and skill. Until implicit bias is removed from the world, said Look, blatant, clear examples of skills competency can help marginalized students experience the full economic benefits of their degree.
Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].