Knowing is Half the Battle

Jan 7, 2013

Since it turns out that the Mayans were wrong about the apocalypse, it seems as though we have to start 2013 rededicated to solving our skills gap crisis. And while for some that prospect seems as painful as the end of humanity, a study done by Philip Oreopoulos and Ryan Dunn of the University of Toronto provides a bit of hope that all is not lost in the fight to get more students to earn a postsecondary credential.

As outlined in a piece by The Atlantic, Oreopoulos and Dunn gathered some low-income teens to examine the impact that information about going to college can have on attitudes regarding continuing education. Half of their study group was shown a three-minute video explaining the return on investment provided by a college degree and asked them to calculate how much they could receive in student aid. What they found was that the short film did a remarkable job at changing beliefs and easing fears about the cost of college and the value of going to school.

This shouldn’t be at all surprising, and yet it still is to some extent. We (meaning policymakers, business leaders, policy wonks, and people who already have a degree) tend to take for granted that everyone knows going to college is worthwhile. Because of that, we tend to fall down on the job when it comes to convincing students that a path to prosperity is available to them, so long as that path includes attaining some kind of degree or certificate.

Yet the better question that we need to answer is this—if a little film can change college-going attitudes that much, what would happen if we started giving students more information? If we could tell students which colleges do the best job preparing people like themselves for the workforce, would it change where they go to school? If we could tell them which credentials are going to give them the best lifetime earnings and highest chance of employment, would it compel them to select an in-demand program of study? Better yet—if we could give them a vastly simplified financial aid package that’s easy to understand, would it make them more likely to go?

These are all questions that demand answers, and getting them starts with making changes to our higher education policy. To that end, the Institute for a Competitive Workforce recently convened a group of 15 corporate and chamber executives to brainstorm ideas for how we might redesign Federal student financial aid into a program that gets better results for students and for our nation.

We’ve chronicled the deliberations of the Task Force in our newest report, Redesigning Federal Financial Aid. The report discusses the need for more data and transparency for students, bringing more efficiency to the financial aid system, and ways to rein in the cost of college by spurring innovation, among other things. It’s our hope that our Task Force’s ideas can help spark a fresh discussion about how we can keep America’s colleges strong and accessible. 

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