In the world of higher education, we spend a lot of time speculating about students. The Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP)’s annual conference aims to shift the conversation by focusing on practical implications for students. This March, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners gathered to share research insights and solutions tackling education, finance, and policy issues for students from early childhood through postsecondary education and beyond. Below are four takeaways from AEFP 2024 — as well as thoughts on future areas of exploration.

1. More personalized and tech-focused education increases enrollment and retention of students

Many panels focused on what factors affect student retention and degree completion. Talks by researchers such as Jieon Shim (Texas State University) and Holly Henning (Florida State University), among others, focused on factors that help students stay in college, such as ideal class size, ideal course structure, and ideal types of support in class. The big takeaway? Increasing personalized support for students is key to retention.

That fits with the overall trend of many colleges changing up established programs to move in a direction that improves student outcomes and works better in increasingly virtual and EdTech-focused learning environments. 

In a session on STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, and Math) and CTE (Career and Technical Education) long-term outcomes, Jing Liu (University of Maryland College Park and IZA Institute of Labor Economics) discussed how taking computer science courses in high school could influence students’ degree trajectory in college and their early-career earnings.

Food for Thought

Overall, these talks showed the passion AEFP presenters harbored for improving student retention and finding systems that work for unique student populations.

However, as a trained social psychologist, I wanted to see more detail on the psychological processes that could be playing a role in the uncovered findings. For instance, why were researchers finding that increasingly personalized learning experiences were helping retain students? Was it helping them gain greater knowledge of course material, was it increasing perceived support, or were students experiencing an increase in belonging due to greater interaction with instructors or learning assistants?

Even if psychological processes were unrelated to the increase in retention, how were these factors affecting students’ belonging, psychological well-being, and perceived fit to college? These factors have been found to predict academic performance by researchers, and it would be interesting to know how these new changes in class size, curriculum, program structure, and learning support could affect them.

A deeper understanding of the processes behind these findings could help inform policy on what factors about the learning environment would have the biggest impact on student retention if changed, as well as if these factors are unique to certain learning environments and/or states or can be implemented in other settings.

2. Rounding out skill sets and in-person trainings improve graduates’ post-graduation outcomes

Many panelists also presented research on individuals’ experiences after graduation. Researchers in these panels, such as Julian Hayes (Harvard University), Yitong Hu (New York University), Catherine Mata (Brown University), and Yung-Yu Tsai (University of Missouri-Columbia), among others, discussed topics ranging from post-graduate earnings and the types of occupations (or graduate school opportunities) secured post-graduation, to how training programs after graduation or courses taken in college could impact job finding and wages.

Presenters shared that participating in training programs and (particularly for STEM, life sciences, and biology degree-holders) rounding out high-level soft skill sets is related to higher long-term income and positive outcomes when finding jobs, and living on campus is associated with an increased chance of attending graduate school after graduation. However, the overall return on investment post-graduation for graduates who achieved high grades is trending lower, perhaps signifying a change in the job market where education is beginning to be valued less than practical skills. 

Food for Thought

I would have loved to learn whether training programs and diverse classes were tied to better post-graduation outcomes because of an increase in students’ self-efficacy, or whether these opportunities simply exposed students to content or networking opportunities that helped them secure better jobs.

I am also curious to learn more about how the fields of education, finance, and policy are thinking about graduate education in the current, rapidly changing landscape of higher education. Media is currently covering the decline in the public’s view of the worth of a college degree, although a college degree is still associated with a notable pay increase. But how are graduate degrees faring in this climate? 

For instance, there is already research on how Black and/or African American and Hispanic and/or Latinx workers earn less than their non-Hispanic white counterparts with an equivalent education. These disparities further enhance the burden of student loan debt, adding to the question, “Is a graduate degree worth it in today’s job market?”

3. Financial aid needs to be revolutionized and expanded to truly aid borrowers

The research that covered financial aid and its impact on borrowers was particularly interesting to me, as I presented findings from WGU Labs and Savi on the impact of student loan debt on borrowers. I talked about the impact of student loans, particularly on borrowers without a bachelor’s, women, and Black and/or African American and Hispanic and/or Latina/o/x borrowers.

Talks by speakers such as Peter Hinrichs (Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland),  Muhammad Kara (Penn State University), Jaime Ramirez-Mendoza (University of California, Davis), Meredith Welch (Cornell University), Jorge Encinas (Harvard University), Lindsay Daugherty (RAND), Andrew Johnson (Michigan State University), and Oded Gurantz (University of Colorado Boulder), among others, generally focused on the following topics:

  • How much can people afford to pay for college, how is this impacted by demographics, and how has it changed over time
  • What the current policies related to financial aid and wraparound supports for financial needs (beyond financial aid) are, and how these are affecting students’ college experience and borrowing habits
  • How policies on financial aid structures are impacting different racial groups 
  • What financial aid policies and wraparound support would Some College, No Degree individuals best benefit from
  • What grants are available to individuals in certain occupations, such as teachers 
  • Scholarship programs and opportunities to pursue policies in specific states to support students of lower economic circumstances and improve retention and achievement

One overarching theme emerged across all these panels: Despite lots of ongoing changes in the financial aid system, policymakers are still struggling to reach student borrowers in most cases, and therefore, borrowers are unable to fully benefit from the ongoing policy changes to financial aid and support. It appears that many changes are still needed to ease the burden of student loan debt and restructure financial aid programs to ensure that students in need of financial aid may benefit from these programs without suffering from life-long repercussions from borrowing. 

Food for Thought

Learning about the interesting policy work in the financial aid space and the programs that are or are not working provided a fresh perspective since, at WGU Labs, we looked at this issue from the borrower perspective by asking survey respondents what information they knew of when it came to repaying their debt.

It would be great to combine these two perspectives to understand how new programs can be implemented such that borrowers will be aware of them and easily capable of accessing these programs.

It was also fascinating to learn about programs targeted specifically toward Some College, No Degree individuals since we found this population to be more severely impacted by student loans than their counterparts who had at least a bachelor’s degree. To further support Some College, No Degree individuals, it would be useful to explore the following:

  • Exactly why they are dropping out of college in the first place
  • Why current financial aid models are failing them
  • What guardrails can institutions use to identify students at risk of stopping out and help prevent this
  • How to better reach the Some College, No Degree population and understand what their needs are
  • What psychological or practical processes lead to these individuals stopping out and what processes prevent them from coming back

4. Research needs to be brought out of academia and into public practice

This year, AEFP showed a huge interest in actionable, publicly accessible research. The keynote speaker, Ruth López Turley (Kinder Institute for Urban Research - Rice University), spoke about taking research outside of academic institutions and acting upon the findings. I, too, have been frustrated with academic research, which is mostly being siloed into research institutes and journals. It was heartening to see efforts to move research to a more actionable space and an inspiring keynote call to action.

During the Welcome Address, committee members of AEFP revealed they’re working on a publicly accessible handbook of research that would provide a comprehensive outlook on K-12 through post-secondary education. The hope for this handbook is to become an information source for the public to easily access research in the education space.

Overarching thoughts

Overall, AEFP 2024 was a thought-provoking experience and served as a hub for research.Although there were many compelling panels on the intersection of financial and education policy, some gaps emerged. In particular, future conferences could place a greater emphasis on online learning. Recent data shows that most college students are taking at least one online course. Additionally, while many speakers shared how they implemented programs across their college or state, a focus on how these programs could be scaled across other states or institutions would be beneficial for converting these insights into actions.