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At a time of uncertainty about the value of higher education and declining enrollment, alumni have a special perspective on the full value of their education. They have critical insights into how their education experiences have enriched their lives in ways that go beyond dollars and cents.

In March and April of 2022, Strada conducted a nationally representative survey of more than 3,200 alumni who have completed bachelor’s degrees since 2002. The findings are eye-opening: Alumni who report they developed key skills during college earned $8,700 more in their first year after graduation than peers who report lower levels of skill development through college. They are also more likely to attribute life and career successes to their education experiences. These skills included general and interpersonal skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and teamwork. They also included specialized skills like data analysis and digital literacy.

The implications for this research are powerful. To help students get the greatest benefits from their education — earnings, careers, and quality of life — educators and policymakers can focus confidently on supporting students in developing a rich mixture of skills that will improve their post-completion outcomes. While many already pursue this approach to serving students, the findings in this analysis of the 2022 Strada Outcomes Survey point us all to the power of ensuring students develop — and recognize — valuable skills that equip them to get a good job, contribute to their communities, and develop a fulfilling life.

At the core of our findings was a fascinating insight that alumni who reported strong skill development were earning more money and had more positive assessments of the value of their education, including feeling their education helped them achieve their goals, was worth the cost, and had a positive impact on their career and life. There was another very important thread to our findings: Equity gaps persist.

Compared to men, women with bachelor’s degrees are less likely to meet the $50,000 annual earnings threshold. And Black alumni are least likely to experience post-completion success, including earning at least $50,000 per year, feeling that their education helped them to achieve their goals, and feeling that their education was worth the cost. In addition, although self-reporting of skill development is associated with better noneconomic outcomes for all students, strong reports of skill development are not associated with income gains for Black alumni.

Educators and institutions can take action to make sure students understand and develop the skills they need to succeed — with specific support for students who face the most significant barriers.

To help students get the most from their education, educators can focus on key learning outcomes. We should not assume that students develop — or recognize they are developing — critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and leadership, as well as specialized skills associated with jobs in the 21st century. These skills should be designed into the curriculum, assessed, and made explicit to students so that they can better understand how their learning relates to key competencies that will benefit them beyond college.

There is good evidence for practices inside and outside the classroom that are linked to developing valuable skills, including project-based learning, work-based learning, and engagement with campus or community-based activities. Unfortunately, access to these experiences is not equitable. Students who need to work to pay for school or serve as caregivers to others may not be able to hold an internship, join a club, or volunteer. When colleges and universities make these experiences more accessible and award credit for them when appropriate, they help students improve the trajectories of their lives.