What we still don’t know about higher education

We know that over 20 million students are expected to attend American colleges and universities this fall. But we don’t know enough about who these students are, how likely they are to succeed at earning their degrees, and whether they will be able to get good enough jobs to pay back their debt. Here, we investigate what is known — and what still we need to know — about today’s students so we can help more of them realize their college dreams.

Who are today's students? How do they fare in college?

We know that the popular idea of college — four years of football games, dorms and parties — is not the experience of most students today. More students who enter college have work and family obligations, leading them to pursue higher education in non-traditional ways such as attending part-time or online.

We don’t know enough about how many non-traditional students — like low-income, first-generation and adult students — actually reach their goals at particular colleges because we don’t report that information for all students. Considering how many barriers these students had to overcome just to get into college, they deserve to have the information they need to choose the schools that will help them succeed.

How do today's students navigate college?

We know that a significant number of students are attending more than one college or university on their way to a certificate or degree. Most students who transfer between institutions do not have a certificate or degree when they transfer. And many students lose a significant number of credits when they transfer, which lengthens their path to a certificate or degree and even causes some to drop out.

We don’t know enough about how many students transfer from particular institutions, which institutions they transfer into, how many end up receiving a certificate or degree and how long that takes and costs them because we don’t report that information about all students, either.

Better information about the paths students take to certificates and degrees will help them better navigate those paths, while helping institutions ease those pathways for students. This will also help move more students more quickly into the workforce.

How much do students borrow to attend college?

We know that more students are borrowing and taking on debt to finance their educations, particularly low-income students. Students and their families have amassed more than $1 trillion in college debt. And we know that some of that debt is causing young adults to delay plans for things like buying homes and starting families.

What we don’t know is how much students are borrowing from all sources, including private loans that do not carry the same terms and protections as federal loans. While data are becoming available on which students are experiencing the most trouble because of loan debt, and which institutions have large numbers of graduates or dropouts who are struggling to pay their debt back, this information is not yet easily accessible to students. As students assume more of the burden of paying for college, they deserve better and more accessible information about which schools will give them the most bang for their borrowed buck.

How do today's students fare in the workforce?

We know that higher levels of education are associated with higher levels of employment and lower levels of unemployment.

We don’t know enough about how many recent graduates are employed and how much they are earning because we don’t report that information by field of study and for all students.

While more data have recently become available about some students’ post-college outcomes, better college-by-college information will equip students as they choose a program of study, weighing the costs against the expected economic benefits, and will help higher education and business leaders better align supply and demand in the labor market.

What is the value of higher education for students and the economy?

We know that higher levels of education are associated with higher earnings, greater civic participation and even better health outcomes. That is reflected in the answer to the question, “Is college worth it?”

We don’t know much about student knowledge and capabilities in areas such as communication and problem-solving when they leave college, and much of what we do know comes from employer and alumni surveys. While there are efforts to better measure graduates’ knowledge and skills, they are voluntary and results are often not publicly reported. This information will help colleges and universities design courses and programs that meet student and employer needs, and help students select colleges that will help them succeed in the workforce.

Learn more at HigherEdFacts.org