News & Events / Diving Deeper into Postsecondary Value, IHEP Research Series Explores Equity and Economic Outcomes

Diving Deeper into Postsecondary Value, IHEP Research Series Explores Equity and Economic Outcomes

Washington, DC (May 29, 2024) Higher education has long been recognized as a key driver of economic opportunity, but new research, spearheaded by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), is diving deeper into questions of postsecondary value and equity. The “Elevating Equitable Value: Investigating Economic Outcomes of Postsecondary Education” series, informed by data from the Equitable Value Explorer tool along with state-level data, surveys, and additional sources, is exploring pressing questions about postsecondary value. Research released today by Trellis Strategies, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), Wayne State University, and the Research Institute at Dallas College completes the seven-paper series.  

“Earning a college degree can change the trajectory of students’ lives, their families, and their communities, for generations to come, but the benefits are not evenly distributed,” said IHEP President Mamie Voight. “By unpacking the nuances of value delivery across different contexts, this research strengthens the evidence-base showing that college is worth the investment. It also can inform policymakers and institutions about targeted strategies to improve the returns on postsecondary education for all students.” 

Field-based researchers across the country built on the work of the Postsecondary Value Commission by exploring critical questions on post-college outcomes in their own specific context: 

How Can Policy and Practice Shape Equitable Value?

Several papers in the series explored how institutional policy and practice can ensure all students benefit from a college degree. Research by Trellis Strategies underscores the connection between student financial well-being during college and future economic returns. A ten-percentage-point decrease in the number of students experiencing financial instability during college was correlated with higher economic returns to students, especially at four-year public schools. The authors highlight the importance of programs that expand access to emergency aid, promote financial literacy, and enhance transparency around college costs and financial aid options.  

A study by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) found that all 33 institutions participating in their Student Success Equity Intensive program had earnings that exceeded the Postsecondary Value Commission’s minimum economic return threshold, but equity gaps persist. Institutions serving a larger proportion of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students or Pell Grant recipients saw a smaller economic return – the amount by which earnings exceed those of a typical high school graduate, plus the cost of their education – demonstrating the need for continued efforts to promote student success and the financial value of college degrees. 

Another key finding shows a strong link between faculty composition and student outcomes. Research by Frederick Tucker of the City University of New York reveals that institutions with more tenured or tenure-track faculty, alongside a smaller proportion of full-time adjuncts, see stronger economic returns for students. This is particularly true at Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) and colleges serving a large share of Pell Grant recipients. 

How Does Postsecondary Value Differ By and Within States?

The research in this series adds to our growing understanding of how certain states are delivering value. For example, a project by Wayne State University found that while postsecondary education generally leads to higher earnings in Michigan, disparities exist. Public, four-year universities in the state provided the highest economic return, exceeding the minimum threshold by over $22,000, while most other types of institutions in the state offered a smaller but still positive return. Michigan ranked high nationally in terms of the amount that students’ earnings typically exceed the minimum economic return threshold, despite having a moderate ranking in median post-college earnings. 

The Research Institute at Dallas College’s analysis paired data from the Equitable Value Explorer with state longitudinal data to measure the economic return at more than 500 Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) nationwide, in addition to outcomes for all Hispanic students in Texas. Overall, economic returns were positive for Hispanic students, but disparities persisted even within Hispanic communities, particularly for immigrants, those from low-income backgrounds and women.  

What is the Role of Geography in the Postsecondary Value Equation?

Location plays a significant role in education options and economic returns. Two papers in the series examined the geographic dimension of value. The American Institutes for Research’s study found that community college students generally earn more after college than those with only a high school diploma in their region. However, community colleges serving a higher percentage of underrepresented students tend to deliver a lower economic value, underscoring the need for additional support to ensure these institutions can effectively serve their students.  

Boston College researchers’ analysis of rural-serving institutions (RSIs) found that while median post-college earnings may be slightly lower compared to urban and suburban institutions, RSIs are typically more affordable. The majority of RSIs still provide a positive economic return for students after factoring in these relatively low education costs, highlighting their vital role in expanding access to higher education in underserved areas. 

IHEP is expanding and strengthening the community of researchers, practitioners and advocates exploring postsecondary value through an equity lens, by providing the tools necessary for researchers, associations, and institutions to tackle these critical questions. For more information about the Equitable Value Explorer, please visit: