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Employers Increasingly Determining the Quality of a College Degree

Source | LinkedIn : By Jeff Selingo


It’s an anxiety-ridden decision for millions of students each year: how to compare the quality of the colleges they’re considering so they can ensure a pay off from what will likely turn out to be the largest investment of their lifetime.

While a plethora of college rankings serve as a crude proxy for quality among thousands of colleges in the U.S., most students don’t attend the brand-name institutions that tend to top the rankings. In reality, students are often limited by finances, academics, or family and job obligations and have just a few choices about where to go. According to a recent study by the American Council on Education, the average freshman at a public university attends a campus that is within 100 miles of home.

“Busy workers don’t have time to distinguish between colleges and universities.”    – Bonny Simi, president at JetBlue Technology Ventures

Quality control of higher education is governed by a national network of regional accreditors approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Without accreditation, a college can’t access federal financial aid for its students. But accreditors are run and financed by the colleges themselves. It’s kind of like the fox guarding the hen house. Colleges determine quality measures they need to ultimately meet.

No Agreement on What Quality Looks Like in Higher Ed

In recent years, such self-regulation has come under increased scrutiny as questions have been raised about colleges that continue to operate with low graduation rates or that produce graduates deep in debt and without any job prospects. Last month, an advisory board within the Education Department voted to strip one of the largest accreditors in the country of federal recognition because of its lax oversight.

While there is widespread agreement among college officials and policymakers that the current accreditation system is broken, this is less consensus on what should replace it. While that debate rages on, a group that is the largest consumer of college graduates is increasingly taking on a greater role in quality control: employers.

Some 71 percent of employers offer tuition benefits to their workers and spend nearly $22 billion on the benefit annually

Employers are beginning to define quality in higher education through their tuition-assistance programs. Some 71 percent of employers offer tuition benefits to their workers, according to Deloitte, and spend nearly $22 billion on the benefit annually. Most employers offer a flat-rate benefit each year and have long controlled how that money is used — for classes related to a person’s job or other positions in the organization. Now, employers want more oversight in where their dollars are used.

“Busy workers don’t have time to distinguish between colleges and universities,” Bonny Simi, president at JetBlue Technology Ventures, said during a panel discussion I moderated at a U.S. Education Department summit last month. “They probably haven’t heard about the problems at some institutions and don’t pay attention to graduation rates or accreditation. We’re doing that work for them and eliminating some of the complexity.”

Simi leads JetBlue Scholars, a new program started by the airline that takes the place of the traditional tuition benefit (JetBlue never offered tuition assistance before starting the program earlier this year). About 6,000 of JetBlue’s 18,000 employees have a bachelor’s degree, Simi said. Many more have some college credit but no degree.

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