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Overall, roughly three in five adults with an associate degree or higher experience both a substantial economic benefit and the fulfillment of their personal aspirations through their education and training, while one in 10 experience neither (Figure 2): Seventeen percent of degree holders earn a substantial earnings premium over high school but do not experience personal fulfillment, while 14% feel fulfilled by their education but do not earn substantially more than high school graduates.
Bachelor’s and graduate degree programs lead to substantially better outcomes than associate and nondegree programs do (Figure 3): For example, 84 percent of workers with graduate degrees meet the earnings threshold, compared to 71 percent of workers with bachelor’s degrees, and just 54 percent of workers with associate degrees.
Occupation is a strong correlate of both economic outcomes and personal fulfillment (Figure 4): Alumni employed in STEM, business, and healthcare experience both the most positive economic outcomes and the highest rates of personal fulfillment, while those employed in services occupations experience the lowest rates.
Men are substantially more likely to earn a wage premium over high school across education levels, but especially at the sub-baccalaureate level (Figure 5): Notably, gender-based gaps in economic outcomes are greater than gender-based gaps in personal fulfillment.
While higher levels of postsecondary attainment are associated with higher economic and personal fulfillment outcomes, results vary by race and ethnicity (Figure 6): Notably, outcomes for Black Americans and Latinos with graduate degrees are similar to those of white and Asian Americans with bachelor’s degrees.
Over the past 80 years, our nation has made great strides in improving access to college, and then ensuring that many more students could complete a college degree.
This focus on completion has clearly made a difference (Figure 1). Since 1992, for example, the share of working-age adults with at least an associate degree has grown from 30 percent to 50 percent, a difference that represents more than 30 million Americans.
We are now witnessing the beginnings of a movement that goes beyond completion and is focusing on post-graduation outcomes as the priority. Just as access without completion is insufficient, completion without the fulfillment of expectations for personal growth and improved opportunities leaves students, educators, taxpayers, policymakers, and employers alike less certain about the value of a degree or postsecondary credential. College completion is not an end in itself; it is the promise of progress and prosperity beyond completion that motivates students to enroll in education programs and inspires our citizens to invest public funding in them.
By understanding that education is one of our most powerful ways to help people achieve their desired outcomes, we are challenged to increase everyone’s ability to pursue improvements in programs, policies, and practices that will fully and equitably deliver on the promise that a quality education offers.
Half of Americans complete a college degree, but only slightly more than one-quarter complete a degree and earn 20 percent more than the median high school graduate.
Source: Strada analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s decennial Census, 1940–1990, and Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement, 1992–2021.
Establishing standard measures of postsecondary education outcomes is challenging because those outcomes are multi-dimensional and complex, and there was little controversy about the benefit historically of a college degree. Fortunately, we now have more tools that enable us to dig deeper. There are a growing number of models for measuring post-completion benefits. These models include measures ranging from employment status, earnings, and financial ROI calculations to civic engagement, well-being, learning, and the fulfillment of personal goals. Each approach comes with its profile of strengths and limitations.
This analysis explores how the inclusion of alumni perceptions — subjective ratings of the benefits students personally attribute to their education — informs our understanding of success beyond completion. This brief overview of findings represents a first step at integrating economic outcomes and personal fulfillment outcomes in order to better understand the full benefits of postsecondary education.
We believe that combining subjective responses with existing data about earnings and completion will provide additional insights into how to provide students with the skills, tools, and resources they need to succeed beyond completion. To do this, we combine public data sources with Strada’s unique datasets of alumni to examine postsecondary success using three constructs: Completion, Economic Outcomes, and Fulfillment:
Establishing outcome standards beyond completing a degree or certificate helps us to identify programs, policies, and practices that deliver on education’s promise to improve people’s lives and the communities they live and work in. By examining economic success and personal fulfillment together, as well as identifying the most successful elements of their educational experience, we can help improve the return on all the investments that individuals, families, communities, employers, and governments make in postsecondary education and training.
Among graduates of degree programs, 58 percent achieve both economic success and personal fulfillment while 11 percent achieve neither.
Source: Strada analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement, 2021, and Strada Education Survey, 2021. Base: Working-age adults (25-64) employed full-time, year-round.
Alumni of associate and nondegree programs fare similarly in terms of economic outcomes and personal fulfillment*, while alumni of bachelor’s and graduate degree programs experience substantially better outcomes.
Source: Strada analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, 2021, and Strada Education Survey, 2021.
Base: Working-age adults (25-64) employed full-time, year-round.
Among full-time workers with an associate degree or higher, 90 percent of those who work in computer, engineering, and science occupations earn a substantial wage premium over high school while 73 percent experience personal fulfillment from their education.
Men are more likely than women to earn a substantial wage premium over high school across education levels, but especially at the sub-baccalaureate level; notably, gender-based gaps in economic outcomes are greater than gender-based gaps in personal fulfillment.
While higher levels of postsecondary attainment are associated with higher economic and personal fulfillment outcomes, results vary by race and ethnicity; notably, outcomes for Black and Latino graduate degree holders are similar to those of white and Asian bachelor’s degree holders.
Across education levels, the outcomes for first-generation graduates and those with a college-educated parent do not follow a consistent pattern and, for those with sub-baccalaureate credentials, first-generation graduates experience higher rates of personal fulfillment than those with a college-educated parent.
Across education levels and demographic groups, graduate degree holders — especially white, Asian, male, and those with college-educated parents — achieve the most positive outcomes in terms of economic outcomes and personal fulfillment, while female alumni of sub-baccalaureate programs achieve the least positive outcomes.
This report points to additional insights available through examining both earning outcomes and personal fulfillment to inform decisions educators, policymakers, and students can use to ensure valuable postsecondary education experiences.
This approach will help educators to better meet the needs of their students, it will give students tools to identify programs that will best serve them, and it will help policymakers better understand how to provide scarce resources in ways that will serve the most students.
Our goal is to provide the field with a clear understanding of how we can begin to incorporate standard measures of postsecondary outcomes that go beyond income and completion of a degree or certificate. This report reflects where we stand today on these measures and begins to make the case for how we can do better.
By putting learners first, we will all succeed in the essential work of providing our least advantaged learners with education that fulfills its promise in their lives. Lasting change will require the focused efforts of visionary policymakers, innovative educators, committed employers, mission-driven nonprofits, and strategic investors.
Spring 2022 enrollment numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse reveal a fifth straight semester of enrollment declines, with more than 1 million fewer students enrolled compared to spring 2020
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.
Recent Strada research points to a striking disparity between first-year students’ aspirations for career planning in their undergraduate years and seniors’ actual experiences.
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.