The new university system website, called Georgia degrees pay, is the latest attempt to quantify the outcomes of higher education from the perspective of consumers. The site allows students and parents to compare institutions to determine which has the best results, future earnings, and how much students borrow. It is presented as an easy-to-use and transparent “one-stop-shop”. In short, it’s simple.
And that’s the problem.
This site, like so many others, relies solely on easy-to-define entries without considering the complexity of lived experiences. Sites like these do students and families a disservice because in the quest to create something simple and easy to use, they end up misinforming and misleading.
Let’s take a hypothetical student eligible for the Pell Grant, which means the student comes from a family earning less than $40,000 per year. First-Time Full-Time Pell Recipient Students Nationwide graduated at a rate 16 percentage points lower than non-Pell students. In fact, the more Pell students a school has, the lower their graduation rate. This is a variable rarely mentioned. The people who will be making decisions about the effectiveness of Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia (my undergraduate alma mater), with graduation rates of 92% and 87% respectively, miss the fact that Tech is 11% Pell and UGA 16% Pell, a major factor in results.
Having wealthier students also has long-term effects on earnings. Students whose families can support them can accept and complete unpaid internships. Within higher education, covering the 2021 student survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, noted that “internships tend to benefit students who are already advantaged – essentially those who can afford to work for free or at low cost” . The survey disaggregated the data to learn that while 74% of white students have done unpaid internships, only 10% of Latino students and 8% of black students have done so.
My hometown of Atlanta is #1 for income inequality in America. With white families having a median household income of nearly $84,000 in Atlanta, compared to just $28,000 for black families, it’s easy to see how these students could easily be derailed after finishing school, let alone complete a high-value unpaid internship in Washington, DC.
Disaggregation divides the data by various groups to determine if everyone has the same results. Georgia Degrees does not. By comparing two schools, a black student may see that one school’s graduation rate is 10% higher than another’s and conclude that it is better. But she should use the feds Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System site to find out that for black students like her, their graduation rate is 20 percentage points lower than the campus average, which is among the worst at a USG institution. Naming the institution goes against my point that students and parents need to dig deeper to find the best solution.
Shaun Harper, Director of Center for Race and Equity at the University of Southern California, published a report card from 50 states in 2019 on black students in public colleges and universities. Viewing these institutions through an equity lens allows students and parents to consider factors that also affect success. Does the campus racially resemble the state? How are teachers represented? Is there equity in completion based on race?
For the nation, the average score on a 4.0 scale was 2.0. For Georgia, it was 2.16 with low marks for student bodies that look like Georgia and have faculty that look proportionally like them. These are also factors that impact student success, and simple websites that continue to ignore factors such as race and socioeconomic status could cause people to draw the wrong conclusions about the best fit. .
And while Georgia Degrees Pay suggests students compare schools in the same industry, the three historically black public colleges and universities (including Albany State, where I worked), one predominantly black public institution (Clayton State) and Georgia State University (my Ph.D. alma mater), where black students are the largest minority group and half the students are eligible for Pell, all underperforming their peers using the site as is. The use of various variables paints a more accurate picture of these institutions.
While I understand the value of trying to quantify student success as a service to consumers, higher education is not a commodity that you simply buy and receive. Socioeconomic status, need for full-time work, gender, or race can all play a role in your ability to complete college. These are complex factors that require a sophisticated approach to help families make the best decision.
Unfortunately, Georgia Degrees Pay only deceives.