Gates Foundation Discusses College Metrics

by Michelle Massie
April 4, 2014

In an opinion piece that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer today, Daniel Greenstein, director of Education for Postsecondary Success at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, affirmed the steps necessary to drive a more inclusive, equitable and effective system of higher education.

According to Greenstein, nearly 40 percent of students who start at a four-year college will not earn a degree in six years. “The proportion of graduates is far worse for those who enter two-year colleges. Low-income and first-generation students fare the worst, as do underrepresented minorities,” he said.

Many students who do earn a college degree find themselves in debt or lacking certain skills.

If these statistics are to improve, Greenstein contends that a new approach to measuring how effective colleges and universities are at educating and awarding meaningful credentials to their students is necessary.

The current standard is to measure outputs, i.e. graduation rates. Greenstein said this approach is flawed as “it only applies to students who follow a very direct path. Today, nearly three out of four students aren't enrolled in a full-time, four-year degree program. They are accumulating credits across multiple institutions, while balancing jobs, family and other priorities.”

Greenstein acknowledged there will be difficulties in creating new measurements, but it is possible and he laid out key points:

  • Measurement must be transparent;
  • Measure multiple outcomes, such as employment after graduation; and
  • Measurement also must be universal and applied commonly to all types of higher education institutions.

Greenstein’s argument confirmed WDQC’s policy agenda.

WDQC advocates for inclusive, aligned and market-relevant data systems used for advancing the nation’s skilled workforce and helping U.S. industries compete in a changing economy. WDQC calls for policymakers in Washington, DC, and in our state capitals as well as leaders within higher education to take a more inclusive approach to education data quality efforts, so they include the diversity of students and workers and the range of education and labor market outcomes that comprise our nation’s human capital strategy. In particular, WDQC supports efforts to:

  • Show policymakers a fuller picture of the skilled workforce, so they can see the results of their investments in education and training programs and identify skills gaps where further investment may be needed.
  • Help educators know whether their occupational programs are appropriately preparing students to obtain degrees needed to advance in particular industries.
  • Publicize the average earnings and employment trajectories of degree holders to assist students and workers in making education and career choices.
  • Attract businesses seeking to expand or locate in areas with a supply of workers that have particular skills.

In the opinion piece, Greenstein stressed that in order to create a better system to measure colleges and universities, “everyone has to be at the table: policymakers, institutional leaders, employers, students, and faculty, who can help decide what conclusions can be drawn from the data generated.”

Greenstein highlighted some promising efforts including work by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council for Aid to Education; as well as subset of associations that are working on how to measure post-college outcomes for students.

Rachel Zinn, WDQC Director, serves on the oversight committee for a Gates funded initiative to develop a framework for reporting post-collegiate outcomes. The initiative is led by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) in partnership with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).