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Facing skepticism, colleges set out to prove their value

BY   January 22, 2016 at 10:30 AM EDT
Class change at Virginia Tech, one of many universities and colleges making a case for its value to the local and national economy and for the return on the investment in a degree. Photo by Jim Stroup/The Hechinger Report.

Class change at Virginia Tech, one of many universities and colleges making a case for its value to the local and national economy and for the return on the investment in a degree. Photo by Jim Stroup/The Hechinger Report.

Virginians who want to know where their state tax dollars are going, and families concerned about what their tuition money funds, may be surprised at the answers they get to these questions from Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

They won’t hear, as some other higher-education institutions fuzzily assure them, that the university is producing citizens of the world. They won’t get generous estimates of its economic impact based on vague or cryptic calculations.

They’ll find out, to the dollar, how much commercially sponsored research is underway at Virginia Tech ($107,382,478 worth), in which industries (transportation, mostly), and backed by how many companies (143, including Nissan, Hyundai, and Toyota).

They’ll learn how many business and engineering graduates have been produced by the school, where in-state tuition, fees and other costs come to $25,837 this year; where they live, and what they earn ($49,000 and $60,000, on average, respectively, after graduation, if they stay in the area).

This detailed accounting is an example of aggressive new efforts being made by colleges and universities to prove something once taken for granted: their value and importance, in dollars-and-sense terms that consumers understand.

“It’s all about quantifying what people get out of their investment,” said John Provo, Virginia Tech’s director of economic development. “These are the kinds of things external audiences care about.”

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Higher education has a good story to tell, said Provo. But, in the face of growing skepticism about high costs and generally low success rates, “It needs to tell it in a different way.”

The price of college has more than doubled, when adjusted for inflation, since 1986. But barely half of students graduate even within six years, putting colleges and universities under unaccustomed scrutiny.

Among other things, the Obama administration has created a website providing what it says is more transparency for students and their families about institutions’ graduation rates, average debt, and postgraduate earnings.

Higher-education associations lobbied to block or water down those ratings. But some have also started fighting back in another way: by producing information of their own about their practical impact.

“Institutions have been able to fulfill their missions for a couple of hundred years with it sort of being understood by people that we’re doing great things, and it was okay to leave it at that,” said Jim Woodell, assistant vice president for innovation and technology policy at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “We’re saying, no, we can’t take that for granted any more.”

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Woodell coordinates the association’s Commission on Innovation, Competitiveness and Economic Prosperity, one of an alphabet soup of such initiatives that have started quietly cropping up in higher education, with many just now beginning to show results. It works with universities including Virginia Tech to create consistent ways of measuring such things as research activity.

“The more institutions feel compelled to make their case, the more we think we have to find a way to create a common language about their contributions,” Woodell said.

Those include how much they spend in their communities — not by using questionable multipliers, as some have done before, but based on very specific data. It means coming up with ways to quantify the economic value of such things as public events, arts centers, libraries, and museums. Virginia Tech has even figured out the tourism impact of its football program ($70 million a year in spending at restaurants, hotels, and other businesses) in and around Blacksburg, population 42,620, where it’s based.

“What we try to do is have a broader view of the contributions institutions have on the economy,” Woodell said. “Frankly that makes a pretty good case, because universities do a lot to stimulate their local economies.”

And that’s not the only thing they’re measuring. The Council of Independent Colleges produced a detailed 56-page report in the fall contending that the private, nonprofit institutions it represents are more efficient at turning out graduates than public institutions, since most of their students finish on time and at a lower cost to taxpayers than their counterparts at public universities.

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While private colleges may charge more, the report said, a degree from a public campus costs taxpayers six times as much, since it requires a much larger subsidy and its students take longer to earn degrees. When state and federal government grants to students at private colleges are taken into account, it estimated, those students cost taxpayers $27,585 apiece, versus $67,126 for each bachelor’s degree recipient from a public university.

“It’s a more emphatic way of making the points we’ve made less authoritatively and less comprehensively before,” said Richard Ekman, the council’s president.

“We’ve been trying for many years to tell the story of the faster time to degree, the lower burden on the taxpayers, the financial aid that’s available,” said Ekman. “We haven’t made inroads with those kinds of arguments.”

But showing them in this way, he said — in a data-rich report coauthored by an independent expert who works not for a private college, but for a public university — seemed likely to have more success. The council plans to release another study this spring about private colleges’ comparative success in producing low-income and first-generation graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Even Harvard has produced, for the first time, a report about the economic and social impact of its alumni. It says that nearly four out of 10 are entrepreneurs who have founded 146,429 companies that employ more than 20 million people worldwide with revenues of $3.9 trillion.

Some of these pronouncements have originated not just as a public-relations strategy, but in response to very specific forces. Those include the fact that billions of dollars given to research universities as part of the federal government’s stimulus spending after the economic downturn came with a requirement that the resulting economic impact be measured and reported.

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One result was UMETRICS — for Universities Measuring the Impacts of Research on Innovation, Competitiveness, and Science — developed in 2013 as a two-year pilot project by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. That gave way last year to a permanent initiative called IRIS, or the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science. (Another, similar program, called the Lincoln Project, convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014, has been producing reports about the contributions of public research universities.)

This flurry of activity has come because, “In the golden age from the mid ‘50s through the early ‘80s, there was an immense amount of trust and goodwill in science and there was a lot of, ‘Trust us, invest in higher education and eventually you’ll get the World Wide Web,’” said Jason Owen-Smith, who oversees IRIS. “But since national politics have become more polarized and there’s been greater concern with austerity and deficits, trust in the idea of fundamental research has declined. There’s greater pressure to effectively demonstrate how, among other important competing priorities, this is worth investing in.”

These demands, said Owen-Smith, have coincided with a data revolution that makes it possible to dig down much more deeply into what universities contribute to the world.

A lot, as it turns out, Owen-Smith said.

“For all the skepticism and for all their problems, the public and private research campuses and the public flows of money into them have created the single most effective system to producing and sharing new knowledge that has ever existed in human history,” he said.

“But just saying, ‘Trust us,’” Owen-Smith said, “is no longer enough.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.