The Bigger Shift: Student ROI for higher education…and the role of digital learning

It started before COVID-19. Students, families, businesses, and those considering college questioned the value, the “return on investment” (ROI), of postsecondary education. Could they do better doing something else? Was the debt worth it? Is college for them?

Those questions loomed larger during the pandemic. They will continue to haunt us moving forward. The WCET Steering Committee is entering into a several-week examination of ROI and, where we can, how digital learning can make an impact in the equation.

From Online to Remote to…. What?

Whether it is collectively referred to as The Big Shift, The Great Online Migration, or any other creative name – there is no denying the massive and rapid transformation in higher education since the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, be it on-campus, online, remote, digital, or any other modality. There has understandably been a tremendous focus on the impact of such a rapid and widespread transformation. This new reality has been followed by the prognostication of many that students will be unsatisfied without a return to campus, while some surveys show a sizeable number of students want to continue some of the gains of online learning and services.

Whatever the role of online or digital learning turns out to be, it is clear that students are re-assessing the return on investment of higher education in all modalities and outputs.

As you enter this ROI discussion, rest assured that we fully understand that value of college to individuals and society of an educated public beyond personal economic gains, but that is a discussion for another day.

With varying approaches nationally, regionally or locally, the higher education landscape feels like a very fluid new frontier fraught with concerns around managing programs, faculty, campus access, vaccine and mask mandates.

Of great concern is getting students back to community colleges and, especially minoritized students who were not well served by higher education even before the onslaught of the pandemic. After such a period of personal, economic, and health-related uncertainties, we are left with the sense that things will never be “normal” again. Or, perhaps, the “new normal” will require significant institutional re-engineering to serve the revised needs of a student populace that has changed both demographically and emotionally.

Whatever the long-lasting effects of this shift to a much more prevalent, mainstream, and essential role for online and digital learning turns out to be, one thing is clear: students are re-assessing the return on investment of higher education for them personally…regardless of modality.

Assessing ROI: The Macro Point-of-View

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded the Gates Postsecondary Value Commission to “…explore ways to define and measure equitable postsecondary value and build momentum toward actionable change.” The work of the commission revolved around a “value definition” that stated:

“Students experience postsecondary value when provided equitable access and support to complete quality, affordable credentials that offer economic mobility and prepare them to advance racial and economic justice in our society.”

Informed by the pandemic and released in May 2021, the Commission’s report issues this finding that arises form research and underscores their recommendations:

“Postsecondary institutions have the power to create opportunities for economic and social mobility for all students—but especially Black, Latinx, Indigenous, underrepresented Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students, students from low-income backgrounds, and women…However, these life-altering credentials and their associated returns are not distributed equitably.”

To address the issues, the Commission’s offered “three equity-centered tools to identify, measure, and address inequities in access, completion, and post-college outcomes:”

  1. A definition of postsecondary value.
  2. “A Postsecondary Value Framework outlines the clear value-add that postsecondary education can provide to students and society, in both economic and non-economic terms. The centerpiece of this framework is a series of economic value thresholds that measure post-college earnings and wealth inequities.”
  3. “An action agenda outlines policies and practices that institutional leaders and federal and state policymakers should implement…”

Oddly, the report does little to delve into online and digital learning’s role in “value.” That was not its purpose, but still odd. We will begin to address that intersection of ROI and digital learning in the blog posts we outline below.

“How do we make sure that education delivers value for all students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, income, or gender? These questions deserve the best answers we can give.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Value Commission

Assessing ROI: The Student Point-of-View

To an individual student, assessing ROI — determining where and how to invest their time, energy, and money — can be a complex and highly personalized set of considerations. We know, for example, that the true price that students pay for college can be quite different from tuition or fees associated with attendance, as recently evidenced by the California Community Colleges push to increase financial aid eligibility for its students. And this at colleges where students pay some of the lowest enrollment fees in the country, but typically shoulder higher external costs to provide essentials for themselves and families while attending college.

What follows are some of the ROI challenges that we will be addressing in the coming weeks.

Financial Aid Challenges

For students learning online, many face additional financial challenges. In an upcoming post in this series from our colleagues at Oregon State University, we will explore how federal and state financial aid and, especially scholarships lean toward students engaged in on-campus learning and leaves online learners short-changed (pun intended). Aid formulas are firmly entrenched in scenarios that favor on-campus, younger students. A good case-in-point is the challenge faced by student veterans in using the G.I. Bill. They receive about half of their housing allowance if they take all of their courses online, but receive the full allowance if they take as little as one course on-campus.

Opportunity Costs and Growing Alternatives

For some students, the opportunity cost of attending college full-time instead of working and advancing in wages over four to six years requires too much sacrifice in the short term. The long-term investment may not be worth it for all students, either. The Third Way, a public policy think tank, studied the ROI for low income students using a measure called the “Price-to-Earnings Premium” or “PEP” and found that “at about 20% of institutions reviewed in the report, low-income students earned less when compared to a high school graduate, even 10 years after they initially enrolled.

A growing part of the “opportunity cost” equation for students is the increased availability of alternatives. In the near term, employers are struggling to find workers. Colleges and universities typically lose enrollments when workers are in demand because the allure of a payday today will outweigh the promise of increased knowledge and income resulting from pursuing a degree. Many students can do both, but many struggle with the work/life/ school balancing act.

At the same time, there is staggering growth in the number and types of “credentials” that are available. Beyond the classic certificate, associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees are the credentials and certifications that meet the varying needs of industry and/or individual learners. They also vary in length, format, modality, and start times. Credential Engine is cataloging these options and of the 967,734 credentials they logged (as of February 2021), only 359,713 (37.2%) were offered by postsecondary educational institutions. Not only are colleges and universities not alone, but they are also outnumbered.

Considering alternatives fits well with opportunity costs. If there are more alternatives, there may be options that present better ROI for students.

Reduce Time-to-Degree

Accordingly, reducing time to degree and offering programs that result in stackable credentials valued by industry remains an important yet still under-utilized strategy for most institutions. In fact, some students are choosing to stick with non-degree credentials and according to a recent Strada-Gallup Education Survey finding that 65% percent of those who complete non-degree programs said their education was worth the cost, and 49 percent said it helped them achieve their goals. Non-degree credentials issued by community colleges also received the highest ratings in terms of quality and value. While a non-degree credential may meet short-term goals, having a pathway to a degree may help with meeting a student’s long-term needs, even if they do not yet know they have that need. In another upcoming post in this series, we will explore the role of stackable credentials in reducing time to degree while increasing earnings as part of the student ROI equation.

Partnerships to Better Serve Students

Still, colleges and universities have come up with innovative partnerships aimed at reducing sticker shock, such as Southern Utah University’s $9,000 bachelor’s degree, or the partnership between Sinclair Community College and University of Dayton that build an integrated transfer program that includes clear up-front pricing with “no surprises” and even boasts coordinated advising for students on both campuses. Workforce partnerships are sprouting up in a multitude of new flavors as well, and this series will further showcase innovative methods of turbo-charging the ROI for students who can earn while they learn via employer-institutional partnerships.

Access is Still a Barrier to Opportunities

While the price of attendance and projected economic gains are important factors, there are other intangibles such as being the first in one’s family to graduate from college, or bringing the empowerment of a college education to one’s own under-served community. A common choice for many students is simply to attend the nearest college to where they live, yet many find themselves in under-served areas such as education deserts, defined as a local area where there are either zero or only one public broad access colleges nearby within a reasonable commuting distance. The price of attendance can increase dramatically for these students, who either choose from online programs or often face the decision of whether to relocate to attend college. As a way of addressing inequitable access, many innovative course-sharing platforms and programs have emerged, such as the California Virtual Campus online course exchange to provide broader access and accelerate student completion by eliminating gaps in available courses and programs.

education deserts map by commuting zone
Education Deserts by Commuting Zone (from the Third Way report Place Matters: A Closer Look at Education Deserts)

While many of us live in a world of high-speed data powered conveniences, the digital divide continues to persist for students, particularly when infrastructure is not sufficient. As an example, various accounts detail student experiences on tribal reservations, where individuals have gone to great lengths to access online learning during the pandemic but issues such as a lack of broadband infrastructure create seemingly insurmountable barriers.

Learning from Students’ Lived Experiences

In order to create an environment in which institutions of higher learning can effectively adjust to student expectations and create an experience that creates sufficient ROI, it is important to hear the perspectives of students and how they think about navigating this complex and personal calculation for themselves. To provide some thought-provoking perspectives, we will feature a post in this series designed to challenge you, our WCET members, to learn about the lived experiences of a small sample of students. This will be an opportunity for members to think about how you might respond to some real-world, thought-provoking questions raised by students.

Come Join Us in the ROI Exploration

photo of two people shaking hands over paperwork - text reads "WCET explores ROI and value of higher education."

Students and their families will make choices that benefit them both in the short and long term. In a world undergoing The Big Shift, are colleges and universities rising to the challenge?

WCET members, as online and digital learning pioneers have long been at the forefront of bringing innovations to solve vexing problems. WCET’s Steering Committee’s Working Group on Student Return on Investment will be bringing different aspects of this conversation to you over the next several weeks through WCET Frontiers and a few questions in the wcetDiscuss Community and email list.

Learn about the different angles on the challenges posed and solutions tried. And, please share what you have done in your own setting.


Jory Hadsell
Jory Hadsell

Executive Director, California Virtual Campus and @ONE – Online Network of Educators
Associate Vice Chancellor, Foothill De-Anza Community College District
WCET Steering Committee Member


Russ Poulin
Russ Poulin

Executive Director,
WCET

WCET Steering Committee Student ROI Working Group

Jory Hadsell – California Virtual Campus
Adam Cota – Western Governors University
Justin Louder – Texas Tech University
Chantae Recasner – Northeast Lakeview College
Shannon Riggs – Oregon State University

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