College usually pays – but we must collaborate to ensure it always does

By learning from each other’s successes and shortcomings, college systems can advance equitable and affordable student success, says Nancy Zimpher

December 17, 2023
A group of people hold up a woman, symbolising collaboration
Source: iStock

In October, inboxes across the US filled with emails announcing the resumption of student loan payments, concentrating minds on the vexed question of whether college is still worth it.

The unmistakable surge in tuition costs over recent years imposed particular strains on loan repayments during the pandemic, and while some borrowers have managed to rebound, others still grapple with the ebbs and flows of their economic circumstances. And some of those thinking of following in their footsteps are attracted by debt-free alternatives to university – from social media stardom to teaching themselves to code to jumping directly into an entry-level role.

But while it is important that prospective students think critically about which pathway will help them meet their long-term goals, there is no question that the narrative around the supposed lack of value in a college degree will do a disservice to the millions of Americans it may prompt to opt out.

That’s why higher education systems nationwide are coming together to publicise the College is Worth It Campaign. We want to remind potential students and their parents that college plays a crucial role in both personal growth and societal advancement, deepening knowledge and expertise in particular fields and significantly broadening career prospects and earning potential.

We are trumpeting the fact that graduates not only earn more than those with only a high school education but also experience a lower unemployment rate. A full 86 per cent of them attest that their degrees played a pivotal role in securing promotions. And while everyone’s starting point varies, graduates universally stand twice the chance of transitioning from poverty to prosperity and are three times less likely to lose their jobs during a recession.

Yet for some, the literal costs of college still outweigh these benefits. Enrolment has gone down because, in an unreliable job market, our prices have gone up. For public institutions in particular, much of this is because state governments have disinvested in college over time, but we in higher education can do better at controlling costs – just as corporations can do better at compensating workers and the federal government can do better at creating a national future that generates prosperous careers (obviating the need for sticking plaster such as the SAVE plan, which offers lower monthly loan repayments).

Admittedly, one thing that has got in the way of higher education’s ability to play its part in building a better future is competition. This is natural when it comes to enrolments, but we all want the same thing in the end: to provide the best education, experience and opportunities for our students. By working together (“systemness”, as it is known), college systems can learn from each other’s successes and shortcomings and develop solutions that can be implemented far and wide to advance equitable and more affordable student success.

For instance, the College Cost Transparency Initiative (CCT) is the result of leaders of 10 higher education associations, including the National Association of Higher Education Systems (NASH), coming together to address the lack of transparency around the financial aid process. More than 350 higher education institutions have pledged to align their financial aid offers with guidelines aimed at fostering better understanding among students and their families of costs. Examples include using plain language to describe all types of aid offered, detailing how much federal student loan debt may cost over time and providing the most accurate estimate possible of the full cost of college in an understandable way.

However, financial aid is not the only concern around college access. Many potential or current students might also be turned off the idea of pursuing or continuing a degree by outdated policies and red tape. One example is credit transfer. Commonwealth University – part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) – was supported by the NASH to address these issues and found that transfer students were not being given adequate credit for having completed general education requirements. A new transcript audit resulted in 456 students receiving nearly 2,500 additional credits.

Additionally, the California State University (CSU) system has developed a simplified re-enrolment process for students who previously stopped their education journey. Identifying the application and related fee as barriers to re-enrolment for under-represented students and recognising the tediousness of the manual processing of re-enrolment applications, a collaboration emerged to develop a streamlined, fee-free alternative that supports students and eases the administrative burden on staff.

Meanwhile, the University of Louisiana System created a programme, Compete LA, which specifically targets adults who want to return to school but have a higher number of roadblocks than traditional students. The programme provides solutions such as personal coaches, reduced tuition fees and adult-friendly programmes. In its first 36 months, it reached out to 5,699 potential students, resulting in 1,216 applications and 874 enrolments. This first cohort completed an average of 74.16 credit hours, and 206 students have obtained degrees.

The changes needed to make college genuinely affordable and cost-effective for everyone cannot occur overnight and cannot be implemented alone. Higher education systems are best positioned to solve these issues at scale, working together to attend to the ever-evolving needs of our students and alumni.

Nancy L. Zimpher is chancellor emeritus of the State University of New York system and interim executive director of the National Association of Higher Education Systems.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

The author is unable to define "pay." That's a critical failure Nothing can "always pay." That's both a logical and an empirical question