IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

What Are the Payoffs to College Degrees, Credentials, and Credits?

The Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment (CAPSEE) is an IES-funded Research and Development Center that seeks to advance knowledge regarding the link between postsecondary education and the labor market. CAPSEE was funded through a 2011 grant from the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and is in the process of completing its work. CAPSEE will hold a final conference to discuss its findings on April 6 & 7 in Washington, DC.

Recently, Tom Bailey (pictured), Director of the Community College Research Center, Columbia University, Teachers College, and the Principal Investigator for CAPSEE, answered questions from James Benson, the NCER Program Officer for the R & D center.

Can you describe some of the original goals of CAPSEE?

We were especially interested in the economic benefits of a college education for community college students, including those who complete awards (Associate’s degrees or certificates) and those who do not, as well as those who transfer to four-year colleges. We were also interested in differences in earnings by field of study. When we started CAPSEE in 2012 there were a lot of studies that used survey datasets to look, in general, at the returns to completing a Bachelor’s degree. The CAPSEE approach was to use large-scale statewide databases and follow college students over time, to look in detail at their earnings before, during, and after college.

In addition, CAPSEE researchers sought to examine two key policy issues. One was how financial aid and working while enrolled affect students’ performance in college and their labor market outcomes. The other was whether for-profit colleges help students get better jobs.

You have synthesized findings from analyses in six states. What are your main findings?

We found that, in general, Associate’s degrees have good returns in the labor market; they’re a good investment for the individual and for society. However, there is quite a bit of variation in returns by program. For students in Associate degree programs primarily designed to prepare them for transfer to a four-year college, if they don’t transfer, their degrees will not be worth very much. But when they complete vocational degrees, especially in health-related fields, the earnings gains are usually strong and persistent (and robust to how we estimated them). Also, we did a lot of research on certificates, credentials that many see as the best fit for students on the margin of going to college. We found benefits to students who completed certificates, again especially in fields that directly relate to an occupation or industry. And finally, we examined outcomes for students who enrolled and took courses without attaining a degree or certificate. We found that their after-college earnings increased in proportion to the number of credits they earned.

"The fundamental policy implication is that college is a good investment."

What do you see as the key policy implications of these findings?

The fundamental policy implication is that college is a good investment. This merits emphasis because there are repeated critiques of college in terms of how much it costs and how much debt students accumulate. That said policymakers do need to think about the value of each postsecondary program. Even within the same institution, programs have very different outcomes. Yet on average, attending college for longer and attaining more credits has beneficial effects. Policymakers should see this evidence as supporting public and private investments in college.

What did you discover about the relationships between financial aid, college outcomes, and labor market outcomes?

In an era of tight public resources, the effectiveness of financial aid policy is a crucial issue. Financial aid does help students persist in college, but one way to promote greater effectiveness is through academic performance standards for students receiving federal financial aid. These have existed in the federal need-based aid programs for nearly 40 years, in the form of Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) requirements. These have not received much attention. Our research on SAP suggests such policies have heterogeneous effects on students in the short term: they increase the likelihood that some students will drop out, but appear to motivate higher grades for students who remain enrolled. After three years, however, the negative effects dominate. Though it has little benefit for students in the long term, SAP policy appears to increase the efficiency of aid expenditures because it discourages students who have lower-than-average course completion rates from persisting. But the policy also appears to exacerbate inequality in higher education by pushing out low-performing, low-income students faster than their equally low-performing, higher-income peers.

Many students work while in college.  Does this seem to help or hurt students in the long run?

Our research found that for Federal Work-Study (FWS) participants who would have worked even in the absence of the program, FWS reduces hours worked and improves academic outcomes but has little effect on post-college employment outcomes. For students who would not have worked, the effects are reversed: the program has little effect on graduation, but a positive effect on post-college employment.  Results are more positive for participants at public institutions, who tend to be lower income than participants at private institutions. Our findings suggest that better targeting to low-income and lower-scoring students could improve FWS outcomes. This is consistent with much of the CAPSEE research—you need more detail and specificity to really understand the relationship between education and employment and earnings.

What did you learn about credentials from for-profit institutions?

Our findings on students at for-profit colleges were quite pessimistic. Although enrollment in for-profit colleges grew significantly after 2000, the sector has been declining during the last two years, as evidence on inferior outcomes – particularly with regard to student debt – emerged. In general, our researchers found that for-profit students have worse labor market outcomes than comparable community college students although in some cases the difference is not statistically significant. Our evidence suggests that these colleges need to be monitored to ensure they are delivering a high-quality, efficient education.

You are holding the final CAPSEE conference in April. What do you hope people will get out of it?

At the conference, we will focus on several important and controversial policy questions related to higher education: 

  • Have changes in tuition and the labor market created conditions in which college is not worth it for some students, contributing to an unsupportable increase in student debt? 
  • Has higher education contributed to inequality rather than promoting economic mobility? 
  • Is continued public funding of college a worthwhile investment? 
  • Should public funding be used only for some programs of study?  
  • What are the arguments for and against making community college free?
  • Can changes in the operations and functioning of colleges change the return on investment from a college education for both the individual and society?
  • How important should information on earnings outcomes be for accreditation decisions and/or for eligibility of students to receive financial aid? 

At the conference participants will have the opportunity to discuss and learn about these issues drawing on five years of CAPSEE research as well as input from other experts.

Students with Disabilities and Postsecondary Success: An Interview with Lynn Newman, Ed.D. and Joseph Madaus, Ph.D.

By Meredith Larson, NCER Program Officer                                                                                     

Although more students with disabilities are pursuing postsec ondary education, completion rates for this group of students have not changed very much in recent years. In a two-year study funded through an IES grant, Lynn Newman, of SRI International, and Joseph Madaus, director of the Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability at the University of Connecticut, have examined the impact that supports and accommodations have had on the postsecondary success of students with disabilities.

             

 

At the heart of their study is the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 , the largest and richest data set available to address the postsecondary experiences and outcomes of youth with disabilities. It is the only dataset that can address those topics for postsecondary students with disabilities nationally, independent of students’ decisions to disclose a disability to their postsecondary school.

Below are excerpts from an email interview with the researchers. 

 

What motivated your study, and what questions are you grappling with?

Although postsecondary enrollment rates for students with disabilities have increased dramatically for youth in all disability categories over the past two decades, postsecondary completion rates for students with disabilities have remained stagnant over time. These students continue to be less likely to graduate from postsecondary school than their general population peers.

This led us to ask

  • What is the link between receipt of postsecondary supports and accommodations – both those available because of a disability and those available to the general student body – and postsecondary persistence and completion for students with disabilities?
  • What factors are associated with requesting/receiving postsecondary supports and accommodations?

What are your major findings?

First and foremost, students with disabilities who received supports, particularly supports available to the full student body (such as tutoring and access to writing and study centers), are more likely to persist in and complete their postsecondary programs. This finding applies to students with disabilities enrolled at both 2-year and 4-year colleges.

However, we didn’t find a significant relationship between receipt of disability-specific supports and accommodations (such as test accommodations, readers, interpreters) and postsecondary persistence or completion for the full population of students with disabilities. We found that the link between supports/accommodations and outcomes differs by disability category. For example, students who were deaf or hard of hearing and received disability-specific accommodations and supports were more likely to persist in or complete postsecondary education than were those who had not received these types of help.  

Does your research suggest why some students seek out or use supports more than others?

Fewer than half of those with disabilities in postsecondary institutions accessed the types of supports available to the general student body, and less than one-quarter received disability-specific help during postsecondary school. Students who received transition planning education in high school and those whose transition plans specified needed postsecondary supports and accommodations were significantly more likely to access both generally-available and disability-specific supports in postsecondary school, particularly at 2-year institutions.

If you could tell each of your target audiences what your research means for them in practical terms, what would you say?

Students and families: By accessing supports and help at postsecondary institutions,  you increase your odds for postsecondary success. If you are uncomfortable sharing information about your disability, which is required to receive disability-specific supports, you should, at least, access the types of supports available to the general student body, such as tutoring and writing centers.

High school staff: Help students avail themselves of supports at the postsecondary level through transition planning. Transition planning education and transition plans that specify postsecondary accommodation needs significantly affect whether students seek postsecondary supports. Clearly, the transition education and planning you can do matters. However, as many as one third to one half of high school students with disabilities do not receive such transition planning services.

Postsecondary staff: Keep in mind that only 35% of students with disabilities who received services in high school disclosed their disability to their postsecondary institutions, so you probably have more students with disabilities on your campus than you may be aware of. Because receipt of postsecondary supports (especially general supports available to all students) are particularly beneficial to students with disabilities, we encourage active and broad outreach about these supports to the entire student body, rather than focusing on just the few students who have chosen to disclose their disability.

In addition, we encourage professional development for postsecondary staff, particularly those involved in providing generally available supports, to help them better recognize and support students with disabilities.

Researchers: Consider the representativeness of your samples of postsecondary students with disabilities. If respondents are identified through self-disclosure of a disability, your sample probably has a large amount of underreported students with disabilities overall. Your sample is also likely to be biased, in that students with more visible disabilities are much more likely to disclose their disability than are those in the higher incidence disability categories, such as learning disabilities.

What might some next research steps be?

Given our findings, we believe there are many opportunities for research related to postsecondary education for students with disabilities.  For example, researchers could study questions about the characteristics, content, extent, and timing of effective postsecondary supports and accommodations. The field would also benefit from additional knowledge about effective high school transition planning education and answers to questions about the characteristics and structures of high schools and postsecondary schools that offer effective supports and accommodations and transition planning education. 

Questions? Comments? Please send them to IESResearch@ed.gov.

Researching Minority-Serving Institutions

By Katina Stapleton and James Benson, NCER Program Officers

A core problem for research on minority-serving institutions (MSIs) is that they have been defined inconsistently. Through the IES-funded Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment (CAPSEE) at Teachers College, Columbia University, researcher Valerie Lundy-Wagner is leading two research projects that aim to provide the definitional and contextual information necessary for carrying out more comprehensive and rigorous research on MSIs and the ethnic/racial and low-income students they disproportionately serve.

We spoke with Valerie about her motivation for studying MSIs and the challenges that face MSI researchers.

How did you become interested in studying minority-serving institutions (MSIs)?

Photo: Valerie Lundy-Wagner

My interest in MSIs was brought about by two experiences in graduate school. While in a master’s program at Stanford University, I met ten African American students pursuing doctoral degrees in one of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. I quickly learned that nearly all had one thing in common—they had attended a historically Black college or university (HBCU) for their undergraduate degree. I was intrigued by this and began to wonder about the extent to which their having attended an HBCU contributed to their undergraduate success and subsequent decision to pursue higher education beyond the baccalaureate.

MSIs also came up during my first year of the doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania where I was assigned to a qualitative research project focused on the contribution of MSIs to the preparation of African American women in STEM fields, and specifically at Spelman College (Atlanta, Georgia)—one of two all-women’s historically Black colleges. Based my master’s research, I had some ideas on the academic, psychological, financial, and structural reasons why students failed to persist in STEM; yet, until that project, I had not seen the numbers. In preparation for our site visit, I ran the descriptive statistics on HBCUs—in particular, their Black undergraduate enrollment but also the number and percentage of degrees they conferred to African American students each year by gender. The disproportionate contribution these institutions were making was surprising. Since then I’ve been interested in learning more about how these and other MSIs (e.g., Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and universities, predominately Black institutions, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions) contribute to postsecondary access and completion by minority and low-income students. Now that I am working on this CAPSEE project, I am especially interested in understanding how these institutions might be meaningfully incorporated into higher education research and into policy interventions that will help close postsecondary attainment gaps by ethnicity/race.

How are MSIs important in the postsecondary system and why should researchers and policymakers be interested in research on MSIs?

Based on the extant research, MSIs are a critical part of the postsecondary system. According to some reports, these institutions comprise 20% of all colleges and universities, and on average, 70% of their undergraduate enrollment are ethnic/racial minority students. While poor K-12 preparation and achievement are significant factors in this reality, the fact that many MSIs are open-access institutions makes them an important site for students seeking a chance at increasing proficiency and pursuing higher education credentials. For researchers, we have the opportunity to better understand how these institutions are successfully transitioning underprepared students into high achievers, but also how their lack of resources may be contributing to less-than-ideal outcomes.

What are the greatest challenges in conducting research on MSIs?

There are at least two major challenges in conducting research on MSIs. First, the institutional status or designation of an MSI has not been consistent over time. What many people do not realize about MSIs is that some were established by the federal government to acknowledge and help address historical and ongoing inequality in access to education (e.g., historically Black college and universities) while others were established to address contemporary inequality (e.g., Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions). Second, and in a similar vein, MSIs have become a large and growing topic of higher education research, yet this body of work largely discusses institutions eligible for MSI designation and those that are actually funded under a federal program as though they are one and the same. In effect, including institutions simply eligible for MSI status with those that have deliberately made an effort to better support an ethnic/racial minority group by applying for and receiving MSI-specific funds convolutes the contribution of the federal MSI programs. This complicates a researcher’s ability to make relevant comparisons between institutions disproportionately serving minority students but also work seeking to compare MSIs to non-MSIs.

Your current IES-funded research project on MSIs utilizes data from NCES’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). What kind of questions about MSIs can IPEDS help answer?

IPEDS is an important and critical resource for postsecondary education research. In the descriptive analysis of this project, five annual IPEDS surveys are being used to help provide basic aggregate-level information on the characteristics of postsecondary institutions and the students they serve. Some of the questions IPEDs will help answer include, “How does percent Pell receipt among undergraduates vary among institutions eligible for and designated as MSIs? And how does this compare across MSI designations and to non-MSIs?” In effect, these questions seek to identify the extent to which there is a relationship between institutional characteristics and minority student outcomes among MSIs and non-MSIs. IPEDS will also provide me with an opportunity to clarify differences and similarities between MSIs and non-MSIs at the institution-level. This is necessary for subsequently developing more rigorous research on the effect of MSI status or funding on minority student outcomes.

Given the projected increases in postsecondary enrollment of minority students, do you see MSIs becoming more or less important to the postsecondary system in the future?

Yes.  Despite the technical issues associated with identifying which set(s) of institutions are MSIs, the fact of the matter is that there are a growing number of institutions that are disproportionately educating students of color and low-income students. Given the gaps in postsecondary access and attainment by ethnic/racial minority students, stakeholders in research, policy, and postsecondary institutions must better understand the challenges and the mechanisms for success occurring at these institutions, as well as how successful initiatives and reforms supporting similar students at predominately White institutions could be brought to MSIs. 


Interested in learning more about this topic? CAPSEE and the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania recently published On Their Own Terms: Two-Year Minority Serving Institutions, a report that looks at the role of two-year Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) in improving postsecondary access and degree completion for disadvantaged students in the United States.

Comments or questions for IES? Please send them to IESResearch@ed.gov.  

Introducing the Research Networks: A New Funding Opportunity from NCER

By Tom Brock, NCER Commissioner

In April 2015, NCER announced a new funding opportunity: Research Networks Focused on Critical Problems of Policy and Practice (84.305N).  The purpose of the Networks is to focus resources and attention on education problems or issues that are a high priority for the nation, and to create both a structure and process for research teams who are working on these issues to share ideas, build new knowledge, and strengthen their research and dissemination capacity.  In this blog, I want to provide some background on how the Networks program came into being and what NCER hopes to achieve.

Over the past year and a half, NCER and NCSER have undertaken a variety of efforts to elicit feedback from education researchers, practitioners, and other stakeholders on IES research and training programs, and to identify problems or issues on which new research is most needed.  These efforts have included Technical Working Group meetings with practitioners and researchers, and a call for public comment that was issued in August 2014.  One theme that emerged was the desire for NCER and NCSER to dedicate funding to particular issues or problems that are widely recognized as important and that seem ripe for research advances.  Strengthening preschool education and boosting college attendance and completion rates for students from low-income backgrounds were frequently cited examples.  Another theme was to consider funding strategies that would encourage greater collaboration among researchers to tackle difficult education topics.  These themes were echoed during meetings with Department of Education staff.    

NCER’s plans for the Networks emerged from these discussions.  The Network on Supporting Early Learning from Preschool through Early Elementary School Grades (or Early Learning Network for short) was motivated in part by the significant expansion of prekindergarten programs in many states and cities across the country, and by the growing body of evidence on the effectiveness of interventions designed to improve outcomes for early learners.  Despite these advances, a persistent academic achievement gap between children from different household income levels and educational backgrounds is present at kindergarten entry and widens during the school years.  The Early Learning Network is charged with conducting in-depth, exploratory research to investigate how selected states and localities are implementing early learning policies and programs, and to identify malleable factors that facilitate or impede children’s academic progress as they move from preschool through early elementary school grades. This research is intended to generate reliable information and useful tools that policymakers and practitioners can use to assess their efforts to build effective early learning systems and programs and to make improvements as needed.

The Network on Scalable Strategies to Support College Completion (or College Completion Network for short) was conceived in response to studies showing that large numbers of degree-seeking students who attend community colleges and other open- and broad-access institutions fail to earn a degree six years after enrollment.  To date, most of NCER’s postsecondary education research has focused on efforts to increase college access or to help students complete developmental (or remedial) education requirements; much less has focused on assisting students to earn diplomas once they are in college and taking college-level courses.  The College Completion Network will address this gap.  Specifically, it will support researchers who are working with states, postsecondary systems, or postsecondary institutions to develop and evaluate interventions that address possible impediments to college attainment, including high college costs, insufficient advising, and social/psychological barriers, to name a few.  The Network will study interventions that are already operating or have the potential to operate on a large scale. The ultimate goal of the College Completion Network is to provide evidence on a range of strategies that policymakers and college leaders may consider adopting or expanding in their states and institutions.

The Early Learning and College Completion Networks will each be made of up to four research teams, plus a Network Lead that is responsible for coordinating Network activities.  (The Early Learning Network will also include up to one assessment team that is responsible for developing a new or improving an existing classroom observation tool that is predictive of children’s school achievement.)  Each team will be funded to carry out a project of its own design, and will meet periodically with other teams to discuss research plans and progress and identify ways that they can strengthen their work through collaboration.  For example, members of the Early Learning or College Completion Networks may decide to work together on some common data collection tools or outcome measures, and to produce a research synthesis at the end of their projects.  NCER will set aside additional funding that each Network can use toward supplementary studies and joint dissemination activities that are useful to policymakers, practitioners, and other researchers.  

The ultimate objective of the Networks is to advance the field’s understanding of a problem or issue beyond what an individual research project or team is able to do on its own, and to assist policymakers and practitioners in using this information to strengthen education policies and programs and improve student education outcomes.  While the composition of the Networks will not be known until proposals are received and evaluated by scientific review panels, NCER hopes that they represent a variety of disciplinary and methodological perspectives and include both senior and early career researchers.  Over time, the Networks may lead to new collaborations and lay a foundation for new lines of inquiry.

The Early Learning and College Completion Networks build on the lessons learned from the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative program and represent one strategy that NCER is taking to address critical problems of practice identified by education researchers, practitioners, and other stakeholders.  If you have comments on this year’s Request for Applications – or if you have other feedback you would like to share – please write to us at IESResearch@ed.gov.