Addressing Students’ Concerns in Higher Ed


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, December 2014

Today’s students encounter a number of barriers on the path to a college degree. They often lack the money to fully pay for college. Some have families to care for or jobs to go to while also pursuing their academic career. Many also feel unprepared to succeed. The list goes on. These barriers are exacerbated by an education system that isn’t adapting to support students as quickly as the student makeup is changing.

So, many prospective students are left begging the question: Is a college degree really worth the cost?

At the foundation, we believe the answer to that question is a resounding YES. Data tells us that despite the challenges many students face—and there are plenty—a college degree is more important than ever. It can set graduates on a trajectory to securing better jobs in an already competitive market, allowing them to earn a higher income and support their families.

Yet, 40 percent of students who start college never graduate. By anyone’s standards, that should be unacceptable.

Thankfully, there is a path to achieving higher college graduation rates: by listening to and address the concerns and challenges facing today’s increasingly diverse student body. Here’s the good news: Colleges, institutions, and organizations are beginning to do this by giving students a voice in how, when, and where they learn.

We must listen to and address the concerns and challenges facing today’s increasingly diverse student body.

Below are three promising examples of how listening to students’ concerns can help build a better system for all.

Concern #1. The Cost of College
It’s no surprise that paying for college is a huge concern for students: college is expensive. In fact, college costs have increased 1,120 percent since 1978. With only 25 percent of low-income students earning their degree by age 24—compared to 90 percent of high-income students—we are missing an opportunity to help more students build a better life and reach their full potential.

GOOD NEWS: Through personalized learning interventions and financial aid solutions, it’s possible to deliver a high-quality education at a lower cost to more students. Personalized learning interventions empower students to work toward a degree at their own pace with tools tailored to how they learn best. Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery (RADD) is a project working to identify ways to restructure federal financial aid to make college more affordable and the path to a degree more appealing to students.

Concern #2. The Value of a Degree
Despite eye-catching headlines stating otherwise, research continues to prove that a college degree pays off in dividends—even when accounting for student debt. In fact, not going to college will cost an individual $500,000over their lifetime. Therefore, it is important that now, more than ever, students complete their degrees and are prepared to enter a workforce in dire need of college graduates—especially those who graduate from STEM programs.

GOOD NEWS: Many schools are working in partnership with employers to ensure the degrees that students earn match the jobs employers need to fill. Here’s one example: In Walla Walla, Washington, there was a big need for more nurses. In response, Walla Walla Community College expanded its healthcare training facilities, doubled enrollment, and filled more nursing jobs.

Concern #3. Finding the Right College
Many students do not graduate on time, or at all, because they struggle to find a college that works best for their needs and goals. For far too long, students have lacked access to information equipping them to make the best choice for postsecondary success.

GOOD NEWS: New tools, like Money magazine’s “Best Colleges” rankings, the LinkedIn University Rankings, and PayScale’s College ROI report, are providing information that empowers students to find the college that meets their individual interests and requirements.

Barriers to student success are nothing new, but the hardest part of college should not be whether or how a student is able to attend. That’s why we are optimistic that by listening to students we can ensure that they complete their degree so they can support themselves, engage in their communities, and achieve their goals.

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