Returns to Different Postsecondary Investments: Institution Type, Academic Programs, and Credentials
Early research on the returns to higher education treated the postsecondary system as a monolith. In reality, postsecondary education in the United States and around the world is highly differentiated, with a variety of options that differ by credential (associates degree, bachelor’s degree, diploma, certificate, graduate degree), the control of the institution (public, private not-for-profit, private for-profit), the quality/resources of the institution, field of study, and exposure to remedial education. In this Chapter, we review the literature on the returns to these different types of higher education investments, which has received increasing attention in recent decades. We first provide an overview of the structure of higher education in the U.S. and around the world, followed by a model that helps clarify and articulate the assumptions employed by different estimators used in the literature. We then discuss the research on the return to institution type, focusing on the return to two-year, four-year, and for-profit institutions as well as the return to college quality within and across these institution types. We also present the research on the return to different educational programs, including vocational credentials, remedial education, field of study, and graduate school. The wide variation in the returns to different postsecondary investments that we document leads to the question of how students from different backgrounds sort into these different institutions and programs. We discuss the emerging research showing that lower-SES students, especially in the U.S., are more likely to sort into colleges and programs with lower returns as well as results from recent U.S.-based interventions and policies designed to support success among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Chapter concludes with some broad directions for future research.