The Investment Payoff: Reassessing and Supporting Efforts to Maximize the Benefits of Higher Education for Underserved Populations

This Resource Review was peer-reviewed by members of the AIR publications volunteer panel, and the ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Members are invited to join the discussion by commenting below.

Ann Coles, Institute for Higher Education Policy (2013)

Reviewed by Meg Wright Sidle

investpayoff.jpgThe Institute for Higher Education Policy’s (IHEP) six-page report, The Investment Payoff: Reassessing and Supporting Efforts to Maximize the Benefits of Higher Education for Underserved Populations, provides good ideas for readers who are looking for a list of policies and practices to increase underserved students’ success in college and the workplace. The report does not offer a specific definition for “underserved.” It points out that underserved populations often include adult students (no specific minimum age is provided), first-generation students, low-income students, and immigrant students.

The report presents the Pathways to Postsecondary Benefits Model, a three-tiered figure with precollege experiences as its foundation, the choices students make in the middle, and the public and private benefits realized as the crown. The model is designed as a more complete way of describing the benefits of higher education because it incorporates “students’ backgrounds before entering college, the pathways students take to and through postsecondary education, and the risks and tradeoffs they face along the way.” (p. 3)

While the title might suggest that a quantifiable method for calculating the investment of attending college is presented, it does not provide any such numerical model. It is easy to come away from this report with more questions than answers. For instance, how can the numerous financial, cultural, and/or academic challenges an underserved student encounters before college be measured? How can trade-offs in terms of postsecondary benefits be calculated based on whether a student attends full- or part-time, a two-year college or a four-year university, or is in a physical classroom or online? Finally, how can unrealized public benefits be measured, such as increased tax revenues and increased workforce diversity that fail to materialize when a student does not complete college or repay student loans?

Institutional researchers tasked with calculating the benefits graduates derive from attending their respective institutions may have limited use for this report. However, at the beginning of the report, some helpful national sources are provided to use for benchmarks, such as average salaries of recent baccalaureate graduates with particular majors and average student loan debt loads.

This model helps to “identify key intervention points at different stages that move students along the pathway to success, anticipate and mitigate barriers, and encourage and support better decision-making.” (p. 4) Despite the fact that the model does, indeed, identify such intervention points, the recommendations that anticipate and mitigate any barriers are quite general in nature. They are derived from discussions about policies and practices at the National Summit on the Investment Payoff, a meeting for leaders in secondary education, higher education, government, and the private sector (business/workplace).

This report is a must-read for higher education representatives on community taskforces that focus on increased participation, improved graduation rates, and workforce topics. Recommendations from the report include (1) focus on interventions that increase student success, (2) development of deeper understandings of how underserved students approach college and the creation of transition programs for high-school dropouts, (3) use of federal and state funding policies as incentives to initiate change and to increase the number of students who earn degrees, and (4) improvements in how well high school and college curricula prepare graduates for the workforce.

This report is recommended for institutional researchers who want to learn about some of the policies and practices that foster the success of older, first-generation, low-income, and/or immigrant students. However, the report will frustrate IR professionals who want to learn how to quantify the ways in which college pays off for underserved students.

Meg Wright Sidle is Director of Institutional Research and Effectiveness at University of Pikeville.



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Total Comments: 2
Terry posted on 7/11/2013 8:24 AM
As I am reading this review, another article in this issue of eAir keeps popping into my mind, "Using Large Datasets" in the Special Features section. First, a study involving high school, postsecondary, and employers suggest the use of a really large dataset. Second, that large dataset has yielded some really fruitful policy recommendations.
Marv posted on 7/11/2013 7:19 PM
Meg points out IR personnel may be disappointed this report doesn’t identify items to quantify. They should not. There are many aspects of college completion that can’t be plugged into an equation yet are inherently valuable and ultimately lead to greater financial and societal gain. Shifts in perception, attitudinal changes and value judgments, etc, are all value-added products of graduates and foster their later life decisions, monetarily and otherwise. Second, there are qualitative actions institutions can take that likely improve college completion, yet are difficult to measure. My institution for instance, is considering using ‘Success Steps’ – brief biographies of underserved students who successfully navigated to upper class levels. The intent is the actions these successful students took will inspire peer students. Whether it does or not is difficult to quantify but is a worthwhile strategy to employ.