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With a foreword from Ruth V. Watkins, president of Strada Impact:
“In order to fulfill our promise, regain trust, and meet the needs of individuals and industries, our attention and our efforts must extend beyond completion of degrees. It is time for the era of outcomes — particularly the socioeconomic outcomes higher education has long promised, including employment, earnings, and fulfillment of purpose.”
Higher education’s measurement of student success is in the midst of an evolution. For nearly five decades, success efforts focused on access, then two decades with completion as the horizon for success, and now the focus is extending to student outcomes beyond completion. Researchers and leaders are increasingly examining post-graduation outcomes, including measures such as earnings, employment, return on investment, and socioeconomic gains, to better understand the value of postsecondary education. Given the expanded focus on outcomes beyond completion and with equitable student success at the forefront, college and university leaders are now mobilizing to pursue solutions that ensure all students realize the full benefits of postsecondary education.
Having spent the past two decades in university and college leadership roles, we have been on the frontlines of examining and implementing programs, practices, and policies aimed at advancing student success. We — like many higher education leaders — have helped institutions respond to the evolving needs and expectations of students, parents, policymakers, and the public. At this critical moment — as our nation grapples with a global pandemic, heightened awareness of racial injustice, and economic uncertainty — higher education leaders see opportunities to enable improved outcomes for all students, and Strada Education Network is eager to serve as a partner and collaborator in this work.
We joined Strada to support higher education leaders and policymakers in their efforts to innovate, scale, and sustain solutions that will advance more equitable access, completion, and post-graduation outcomes. The daily immersion in work with leaders across the spectrum of higher education — educators, students, policymakers, researchers, advocates, funders, association leaders, and entrepreneurs — points more and more strongly to a core set of effective practices for ensuring equitable outcomes after graduation, including guidance to better navigate educational options, resources to access and complete education, and stronger connections between education and work.
This report is intended to share early observations and insights from our work with Strada’s Beyond Completion Challenge — an initiative designed to incentivize and support equitable student outcomes.
As we learn with and from those leading change at higher education institutions across the country, we are committed to synthesizing and sharing these insights with the field in hopes of offering up practices that most effectively drive positive change.
President Lyndon B. Johnson declared in 1965 that higher education was “no longer a luxury, but a necessity.” This enduring statement rings especially true now, as our country navigates uncertainty and injustice on a number of fronts. In the pursuit to educate more individuals and advance communities, the past 70 years of postsecondary education have unfolded in two distinct phases — an era of access followed by one of completion.
The GI Bill, passed in 1944, and the Higher Education Act of 1965 drove expanded access to postsecondary education with the authorization of federal aid programs for students and federal dollars to improve and create more universities and colleges. In 1940, only 11 percent of adults had completed one year or more of post-high school education, and access then increased to 50 percent in 1990 and to nearly 60 percent in 2019 (see graphic above). As access became more widespread, completion rates stagnated and even declined at some institutions, with only 30 percent of individuals completing an associate degree or higher in 1990 and 44 percent in 2019. Leaders recognized that opening the door of access to more students was not enough. Improving persistence and completion rates became the new focus and measuring stick of institutional success. The completion movement focused tremendous leadership efforts and resources to develop comprehensive policy and practice solutions to improve graduation rates.
Today a plethora of federal, state, and institutional-level strategies target student success and the advancement of college completion rates. For example, the latest Build Back Better Act includes approximately $500 million1Nguyen, S. (2021, November 23). How will the Build Back Better Act invest in Higher Education? Education Policy.
for federal college retention and completion grants. University and college strategies aimed at restructuring curriculum, improving student support services, expanding opportunities for high school students to earn college credits, and targeting outreach to reengage adult students who stopped out all abound.
More recently, we have seen dozens of national organizations examining post-graduation outcomes (e.g., earnings, employment, return on investment, etc.) extending the way we evaluate and define postsecondary education success. This movement toward increased focus on post-graduation outcomes and value emerges just in time as myriad challenges, such as equity gaps and a crisis of confidence, press upon postsecondary education.
While some notable improvements have been made in completion rates over the past 20 years, equity gaps persist and illuminate the critical need to redefine what success means and to consider expanding our nation’s focus to include not only access and completion, but also outcomes beyond the completion of degrees and credentials. The need to focus on post-graduation outcomes emerges in the doubts raised by students and alumni about the value of their education. While not a new phenomenon, the past several years have been marked by a further erosion of public confidence in the value of college and university degrees. The concerns about value shared by many prospective and current students center on ROI and are driven by questions about the connection between education and a “good job.” For high school students who delayed college enrollment during the pandemic, only 45 percent believe postsecondary education will be worth the cost2Torpey-Saboe, N., & Leavitt, M. (2021, June 23). Public Viewpoint: Reconnecting Recent High School Graduates With Their Education Aspirations, Strada Education Network.. And, only about half of current college students3Center for Education Consumer Insights. (2020, October 27). Public Viewpoint: COVID-19 and the Value of College, Strada Education Network. believe the investment in their education will be worth it — a number not far afield from the 40 percent underemployment of recent graduates4Federal Reserve Bank of New York. (2021, May 21). The Labor Market for Recent College Graduates. who find themselves working in jobs where the majority of their peers do not have a college degree.
The perspectives of college graduates also provide insight into this crisis of confidence. When surveyed, only half of bachelor’s degree holders5Clayton, D., & Torpey-Saboe, N. (2021, October 27). Public Viewpoint: Student Outcomes Beyond Completion: National Findings From the 2021 Strada Alumni Survey. Strada Education Network. can affirm three key outcomes:
There are clear disparities in both gender and race/ethnicity in how college graduates report the value of their degree using the three key variables outlined above. The chart above shows Latino, Asian, and Black males are less likely than their white counterparts to report positive outcomes across the three variables. Female graduates fare less favorably than men across all racial groups. When considering the intersectionality of race and gender identity, these outcomes are particularly sobering with only 25 percent of Black female alumni achieving positive outcomes across all three variables.
Despite the erosion in public confidence and the inequities in post-graduation outcomes, the value of a degree or credential after high school remains strong for most graduates/completers. In the United States, 65 percent of jobs require postsecondary education or training6Carnevale, A., Smith, N., and; Strohl, J. (2013, June). Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020 (Executive Summary). Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. and, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce7Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. (2021, May 21). Tracking COVID-19 Unemployment and Job Losses: Share of Workers Unemployed by Education Level., workers without a college degree were more likely than their peers with a degree to become unemployed during the pandemic. These data become even more stark when viewed with an equity lens, as the 2020 and 2021 unemployment rates8Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. (2021, May 21). Tracking COVID-19 Unemployment and Job Losses: Share of Workers Unemployed by Education Level. for African American and Hispanic workers without degrees were far higher than those for white workers. At the same time, employers have made clear that they seek employees who demonstrate both the foundational skills often built through a liberal arts education (e.g., communication, critical thinking) and industry-specific skills9Weise, M. et al. (2018, November). Robot-Ready: Human+ Skills for the Future of Work. Strada Institute for the Future of Work and Emsi. — not one or the other. This indicates that, while earning a degree already leads to stronger labor market outcomes, there is still a need to enhance the value of a degree by integrating career readiness into foundational curriculum. Therefore, programs and solutions that center on stronger connections between education and career can drive better completion rates, as well as improved post-graduation outcomes.
Students and alumni are clear and consistent when it comes to the connection between their beliefs about the value of their education and the degree to which they feel it is or was connected to their career. Current college students10Center for Education Consumer Insights. (2020, October 27). Public Viewpoint: COVID-19 and the Value of College. Strada Education Network. surveyed in September 2020 were more likely to report they feel their education will be worth the cost when they receive career-relevant support. Similarly, when degree holders look back and report valuable experiences connecting their education to career preparation and the development of skills valued in the labor market, they are more likely to be satisfied with the value of their education and their post-graduation outcomes are markedly better. Data from the national 2021 Strada Outcomes Survey11Clayton, D., & Torpey-Saboe, N. (2021, October 27). 2021 Strada Outcomes Survey: Student Outcomes Beyond Completion. Strada Education Network. show alumni are nearly five times more likely to say their education is worth the cost when they have robust support to connect their education to their future career.
In addition, graduates who had career-related experiences — such as internships, project-based learning, and career and job placement — reported higher post-completion earnings and were much more likely to say their education was worth the cost and helped them achieve their goals.12Clayton, D., & Torpey-Saboe, N. (2021, October 27). 2021 Strada Outcomes Survey: Student Outcomes Beyond Completion. Strada Education Network.
Unfortunately, these types of career-preparation experiences are not equitably distributed or accessed by all students. For example, among currently enrolled13Leigh, E. (2021, December 8). Public Viewpoint: Understanding Undergraduates’ Career Preparation Experiences. Strada Education Network. students, first-generation students are less likely to participate in social capital-building activities or internships, both of which are linked to greater feelings of confidence in career preparation. Addressing inequities in career preparation experiences has increasingly been recognized as a social justice issue, as highlighted in Strada’s December 2021 Public Viewpoint14Leigh, E. (2021, December 8). Public Viewpoint: Understanding Undergraduates’ Career Preparation Experiences. Strada Education Network. report on the career preparation experiences of undergraduate students.
Outside of what students share about the practices that increase the value of their educational experience, we as a field have little evidence about what practices promote student persistence and completion, let alone what drives equitable outcomes beyond completion of a credential or degree. The American Institutes for Research, commissioned by the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Science and in partnership with the College Completion Network and the What Works Clearinghouse, recently conducted a systematic review of the literature on college advising and held dozens of focus groups of college administrators to determine what evidence-based practices are driving student success. AIR noted there is little focus and empirical evidence around what practices and programs drive student success in post-graduation outcomes.
In addition to examining student perspectives and evaluating evidence on practices that drive student success, Strada spent the past year conducting a landscape analysis and dozens of interviews and focus groups with education leaders, employers, and policymakers to better understand the current education and work landscape.
We sought to better understand the major barriers students face, shifts in enrollments, and talent gaps and needs, and how education and training providers were responding to an unprecedented time of change.
What we learned from our research and conversations with leaders has helped to focus our initiatives and investments into three key areas. Our goal is to align our investments and other work around these practices to drive more equitable outcomes for students through and beyond the completion of degrees:
In light of the national trends and driven by our commitment to partner with leaders to support student success through and beyond completion, Strada launched the Beyond Completion Challenge in 2021. This $10 million national competitive grant process15Strada Education Network. (2021, October 14). Strada Education Network Launches $10 Million Beyond Completion Challenge in Partnership with the Taskforce on Higher Education and Opportunity [Press release]. was designed to incentivize and support innovation aimed at improving equitable outcomes for students. Strada invited institutions within the Taskforce on Higher Education and Opportunity — a group of 36 universities and systems serving 2.4 million students that formed amid the pandemic to reimagine the higher education system — to submit proposals leveraging data to inform their particular challenges and proposed solutions. From a strong group of proposals, 15 projects were selected16Strada Education Network. (2022, January 18). Strada Education Network Names 15 Innovation Grant Winners in $10 Million Beyond Completion Challenge [Press release]. and awarded approximately $250,000 each in Phase 1 of the challenge. Through the process of reviewing proposals and engaging with these higher education leaders from across the country, we have gathered initial insights into how leaders and institutions are using data to understand their institutional challenges and adapting and innovating to advance more equitable post-graduation outcomes for the students they serve. It is our privilege to share some of what we have learned with the broader field in hopes to inform, inspire, and support the many leaders working tirelessly to improve students’ lives and outcomes.
What is clear from our observations is that there is no lack of dedication from our colleagues on college campuses across the country to drive meaningful change and improve equitable outcomes for students. While many leaders are fatigued with the ongoing challenges related to the pandemic, student mental health crisis, issues of racial injustice, and mounting enrollment pressures, it is clear that higher education leaders remain dedicated and there is a new level of openness to reimagining how to better deliver on the promise of a college degree.
Among the proposals submitted to the Beyond Completion Challenge, there are initiatives that undertake bold, systemic change; those that focus on capacity-building; and others that put forth new, redesigned, or scaled programs. While each of the innovations proposed is unique — taking into account the particular challenges, student populations, and contexts of the individual institutions and communities — we observed themes and insights that cut across institutional type and solution. We have organized our insights from the initiatives into the three thematic areas noted above: guidance, affordability, and education-to-work connections.
Beyond Completion Challenge proposals included a wide variety of approaches to guidance, advising, mentoring, and coaching to help students better navigate into and through their postsecondary educational journeys. In reviewing proposals, we learned about innovative examples of mentoring, with a focus on populations of students who often face the greatest barriers to success, including first-generation students, students of color, and students from lower-income backgrounds. The proposed mentorship approaches vary by initiative with some involving new approaches to leveraging untapped alumni, creating curated networks of professional advisors from local corporate and industry partners, using the power of cohorts, and expanding existing programs or initiatives. Across the guidance-focused initiatives, we observe an unwavering commitment to ensuring accessibility of high-quality, career-focused guidance to more students.
Additionally, we saw institutions recognizing that the responsibility of career advising must not reside only within a traditional career center, but rather be spread across campus among faculty, staff, and advisors. This is a notable trend observable across campuses nationally. One institution, for example, is focusing some of its Beyond Completion Challenge work on building the career-advising capacity of faculty and staff to ensure more students have access to individuals prepared to assist them in making the connections between college and career. Given that graduates report that their professors and courses were very valuable17Clayton, D., & Torpey-Saboe, N. (2021, October 27). Public Viewpoint: Student Outcomes Beyond Completion: National Findings From the 2021 Strada Alumni Survey. Strada Education Network. to them, but that experiences connecting college to career were not common or uniformly available, this strategy is particularly encouraging. Several institutions are uniquely leveraging new, scalable technologies to provide students with advising, mentorship, professional skills development, and internships to better equip them for academic and career success.
As we reviewed proposals, it became clear that financial barriers remain a pervasive challenge for students. A number of initiatives proposed approaches to addressing affordability. For example, institutions shared plans to expand paid internships, paid research experiences, summer housing, and professional/career development using a variety of funding sources, including institutional funding, philanthropic funding, and employer-paid internships. One comprehensive institutional approach focused on affordability and resources includes stipends for child care and for students to purchase professional attire. Another particularly innovative approach addresses affordability by completely redesigning curricular and cocurricular experiences and support to accelerate the time to degree, reducing the cost of attendance for students. It is clear that financial barriers are front of mind for institutions looking to close equity gaps by creating access to opportunities that make stronger connections between education and future employment.
Examples of proposed approaches to addressing barriers in affordability and resources for students
We were excited to see a range of approaches to developing stronger connections between college and career, including work-based learning experiences, creative employer partnerships, and stronger career-relevant curriculum. Institutions are bolstering these connections by leveraging strategies already noted above, including expanding internships, project-based learning, apprenticeships, and mentoring. One institution that received Beyond Completion Challenge funds is creatively leveraging the student work experience on campus and scaling to off-campus work opportunities to ensure working learners are building the skills and mindsets valued by employers, and also expanding the student work supervision model to include reflection, career guidance, and mentoring. Other institutions are building their own technology platforms or contracting with outside companies to provide these career-relevant experiences and connections. We also observed institutions proposing new and creative partnerships with large employers, health systems, and sets of local employers. These partnerships include targeted education, clinicals, internships, and creating clearer, supported pathways from education to work. One campus is leveraging its close physical proximity to a major health care employer to create stronger career relevance for students while also meeting the employer’s need for an educated and skilled workforce. We observed leaders focused on creating or scaling education programs that address labor shortages.
Some institutions also are intentionally engaging with employers in their communities to create internships and programs to help meet local workforce needs.
Through the challenge, we also have learned about emerging trends to hardwire connections to career within the curriculum — redesigning both individual courses and, in more extreme cases, rethinking degree programs more comprehensively. Institutions increasingly are using labor market data to inform existing curriculum and to develop new programs. The University of Texas System has taken the bold step of redesigning specific majors to embed industry-recognized, microcredentials into the curriculum and cocurriculum in an effort to make stronger connections between education and work and to ensure that graduates develop the skills desired by employers.
To further illuminate the themes we have outlined above, our colleagues Lori Carrell at the University of Minnesota Rochester, Kimberly Johnson at the University of Oregon, and Lydia Riley at the University of Texas System offer case studies about their Beyond Completion Challenge initiatives. We appreciate their generosity in sharing the approach they and their colleagues have taken to enhancing the connections between education and work, with a focus on ensuring equitable, high-quality outcomes for graduates. To learn more about all of the Phase 1 Beyond Completion Challenge projects, please visit stradaeducation.org/bcc
University of Minnesota Rochester
Nxt Gen Med: Redesigning Health-Related Baccalaureate Degrees for Lower Cost, Faster Completion, Academic Success, and Career Readiness
University of Oregon
Ducks Rise: Empowering Underrepresented Minorities and Low-Income Students Through Research Internships and Intentional Student Experiences
University of Texas System
Developing In-Demand Skills Among Undergraduates for Better, More Equitable Post Completion Outcomes
Despite the many challenges institutions of higher education and their leaders face, we remain optimistic given what we see happening on campuses across the nation.
Higher education leaders, faculty, and institutions adapted and innovated during the COVID-19 pandemic in unprecedented ways. And many seek to sustain this momentum for continual change and improvement. We’ve observed a unique openness to innovation in leaders and campuses to better serve students and to build stronger connections between education and careers. We also are seeing the use of data and promising practices to improve student outcomes beyond completion.
We have highlighted some of the unique proposals and themes from the Phase 1 proposals from the Beyond Completion Challenge. We also offer these five observations and early insights from the 39 Phase 1 proposals. We look forward to continuing to build upon their early insights over the next year to keep the field apprised of timely developments on campuses across the country.
At a time when public confidence in the value of higher education has been weakened and amid the current economic, public health, and racial justice context, we must reassert our collective commitment to ensuring that all students who desire postsecondary education not only have access, success while enrolled, and complete their degrees, but also that they realize the full benefits of their investments — a good job, meaningful work, a fulfilling life, and the ability to contribute to their families and their communities. While there is much work to be done, we remain confident that higher education and policy leaders are up to the task.
We look forward to continuing to support and learn with and from the Beyond Completion Challenge Phase 1 and 2 initiatives. We will continue to share our insights with the hope of informing and helping to advance other efforts in the field.
“We must reassert our collective commitment to ensuring that all students who desire postsecondary
education not only have access, success while enrolled, and complete their degrees, but also that they realize the full benefits
of their investments.”
Higher education’s measurement of student success is in the midst of an evolution. For nearly five decades, success efforts focused on access, then two decades with completion as the horizon for success, and now the focus is extending to student outcomes beyond completion.
Applied connections between education and work are increasingly a part of undergraduate education in the United States.
Two centuries after the first historically Black colleges and universities were founded, the 101 accredited HBCUs in operation today continue to deliver on their legacy of expanding educational opportunity for Black students that leads to successful and fulfilling lives.
As a field, higher education has experienced a continuing evolution in how to measure success. For nearly five decades success efforts were focused on access, followed by the past decade and a half pursuing completion, and the field now has a growing focus on the value of a degree and student outcomes beyond completion.
Strada’s prior research on undergraduate perceptions of the value of their education demonstrates that students value their education most when they receive support to connect their education and career interests.
In the wake of historic pandemic-related enrollment declines, postsecondary institutions have responded by developing and expanding innovative approaches to engaging learners.
The baccalaureate degree remains the surest path to economic mobility, employment stability, and a host of associated social benefits.
Steep declines in undergraduate enrollment during 2020 and 2021 threaten to widen existing equity gaps in college completion and career opportunities.
Nondegree credentials have been growing rapidly for decades. During the COVID-19 economic crisis, interest in nondegree credentials and skills training options was especially high. Questions about their quality and value, however, remain.
The high school classes of 2020 and 2021 have endured massive disruption to their education.
The pandemic has led to a national crisis of widespread disruption to both work and education for millions of adults in the U.S., especially those from historically marginalized groups.
From its onset in early 2020, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has upended life across the world, leading to uncertainty around health, work, finances, education, and a host of other issues.
Over the past 15 years, the number of student loan recipients has increased by 51 percent and the debt associated with those loans has more than doubled.
We asked alumni nationwide who had borrowed money to go to school if their loans were worth it. Strada Education Network and Gallup surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 6,000 student loan holders.
Our mission is to improve lives by forging clearer and more purposeful pathways between education and employment.
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