With today’s post, we continue the WCET Steering Committee’s series on student return on investment (ROI) and the role of digital learning in improving that return. Thank you to Chantae Recasner of Northeast Lakeview College in San Antonio, Texas. She reminds us that student ROI requires institutional attention to equity. This is especially true for students who have not been well-served by institutions, such as minoritized and low-income students.

-Russ Poulin, WCET

In the last decade, conversations about college affordability have become increasingly nuanced ranging from thoughts on tuition scaling and college access to student loan debt management and workforce skills development. While many colleges and universities explore and implement initiatives to advance value for every credential offered, equity consciousness must remain at the core of the conversations to ensure all students experience that added value.

Historically minoritized and low-income students have been often the last to feel the impact of broad-based initiatives intended to improve student experiences.

Historically minoritized and low-income students have been often the last to feel the impact of broad-based initiatives intended to improve student experiences. Focused national DEI initiatives like the MBK Alliance and Excelencia in Education attempt to mitigate this reality. Yet, it is often the outcome(s) of systemic disadvantage (i.e., success gap data) that drives conversations about and decisions to prioritize certain initiatives at colleges and universities. 

Learn About Value by Listening to Student Voices

As we navigate thoughts of college affordability and ROI, amplifying the voices of students can potentially provide insights on inclusive strategies and practices (Libassi, 2018). My thoughts here are informed by the perspectives of two college students with whom I’ve had conversations about the value of higher education. One student is a Black male (self-identified), Pell eligible, full-time enrolled, first-time-in-college attendee at a for-profit university. He attends college totally online. He is also a parent. The other is a Black immigrant student (self-identified) from a middle class family with parents who pay her tuition at the local community college. This is her second attempt at college.

Both students understand the concept of return on investment (ROI). However, from my conversations with both, I want to share their thoughts on the following questions:

  • Why college? And why now (during the Pandemic)?
  • What do you value most about your college?
  • What about the expenses?

Student A: Black, Male, Pell Eligible, First-time, Full-time Student at a For-Profit University

Why college? And why now?

I decided it was time for me to do something, something that I knew for sure would give me a way to provide for my son. I know the pandemic is going on, but I can go to school completely online…When I found the school, they made it easy for me to get started. I never went to college or did none of that, but I talked to somebody from the school and they got me set right up.

What do you value most about your college?

These people told me they would make sure I graduate. I’m doing okay, but I don’t feel like if I mess up one time they’re going to kick me out.

What about the expenses?

I’m getting financial aid. They [the college] take care of everything and send me what I need. It’s taken care of so I’m not worried about that.

Student B: Black, Female, Immigrant, Tuition Paid by Parents at a Community College

Why college? And why now?

Well, I was already enrolled so I had to finish. I know there are other ways to get ahead and you don’t need college for every way to make money. But, for some fields, like what I’m studying, you actually need a degree. I hate taking classes online, but I’m glad I could so that I didn’t fall behind during the pandemic.

What do you value most about your college?

I get way more support than I expected. I got a lot of support from (names the first college she attended), but I was focused on other things then. Now, I feel like everything I want to do, there’s support for me to do it…. Being a leader now is important, that’s a part of my development. And the experiences I have gained helped me grow. That’s the biggest part for me.

What about the expenses?

Well, I don’t have expenses (laughs). My parents pay my tuition. But, it sucks because things are really expensive now and it’s not just about the tuition. Everything is expensive. So I try to earn money however I can. I just hate that as a middle class person, I don’t qualify for Pell grants and I don’t want loans. Scholarships are hard to get. But, I’m doing everything I can to try to get scholarships when I transfer.

To be clear, this brief insight from the students is not intended as findings from a well-structured qualitative investigation. The goal here is simply to allow the voices of students to enter our considerations of ROI, and to remind us to actually listen to and for those voices—especially the historically silenced ones.

Students Want the Institution to “Care” about Them

Doug Lederman’s (2021) Inside Higher Ed discussion of the Third Way and New America survey reveals that less than 75% of students surveyed believed “their institution cares about students like them.” Lederman also notes the survey revealed Black and LatinX college students are the students most likely to believe “Higher education is not worth the cost to students anymore.” In my very brief exchange, two Black students made it clear how important institutional support and care are for their journeys.

For Black and Latinx poor students, the economic returns do not trend as highly as they do for their White counterparts because these students still tend to select colleges that do not produce the highest earners (Steel-Figueredo, 2016). But, the “human value of a college education” (Gault, Reichlan, & Roman, 2014) could still have great possibility for these students.

In 2014, Arroyo and Gasman put forth an HBCU-based model for engendering success for Black students. Their conceptual framework suggested that beyond accessibility and affordability, institutions must focus on the interplay between identity formation, values cultivation, and achievement. Theirs is an example of the kind of humanistic consciousness needed as we consider how to advance access and increase the value of education.

Over the last two years, Northeast Lakeview College has partnered with Hanover Research to build an Early Warning Dashboard that helps us to look more closely at who our students are. One of Hanover’s proposed strategies for student and institution success is “creating safe and supportive environments.” Arroyo and Gasman fundamentally are calling for just that. In their framework, however, the student’s identity is centered—it’s the catalyst for the model.

Value is Subjective, But Successful Student ROI Requires and Applying and Equity Lens

The point here is that the concept of value is a deeply subjective one even if we connect tuition and fee costs to earning potential.

While Student A above will surely have to contend with the high cost of his education, his value currently is in being deemed worthy—being shown care, being provided help, being assured of opportunity to misstep without expulsion. Where Student B understands the economic relief provided by her parents’ support, she places a high value on the presence of personal growth opportunities and her ability to achieve her goals.

If college affordability exists when “students can anticipate substantial economic and social gain after graduation compared with a future without college,” (Gault, Reichlan, & Roman, 2014) then maybe all that matters is what each college/university does to fully invest in its students—all of its students. 

Affordability in this sense then, cannot exist in the absence of equity. In fact, affordability then becomes synonymous with equity.



Libassi, C.J. (2018). The neglected college race gap: Racial disparities among college completers. Center for American Progress.

Steele-Figueredo, D. (2016). Why do students value college? Huffington Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/why-do-students-value-col_b_12580368.

Gault, B., Reichlan, L. & Roman, S. (2014). College affordability for low-income adults: Improving returns on investment for families and society. Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Chantae Recasner

WCET Steering Committee Chair, WCET Executive Council, Vice President for Instruction, Seattle Central College


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