Not long ago, a good friend and outstanding college president moved from El Paso Community College, where for a decade he had led a complete transformation of the college and the results its students achieved, to Austin Community College, a college ready for much the same kind of transformational leadership.
Within the first few weeks in Austin, on his drive to work, he encountered a large billboard that said “Austin Community College, Graduation Rate 4% -‐ Is this a good use of taxpayers dollars?”
Welcome to Austin. The billboard was sponsored by a business leader with a variety of concerns over higher education in the Lone Star state. My friend contacted the newspaper and asked for an opportunity to respond. At the press conference that resulted, he strode to the microphone and announced that the graduation rate quoted on the billboard was categorically incorrect – the actual graduation rate was 3.9 percent. The group assembled chuckled nervously. My friend went on to provide some context for these results and address the ways the college was moving to improve them.
What lessons can we draw from this story for the future of our work, especially as it touches on the remarkable attention now being focused on how our students complete what they have started: Who earns a degree or other credential? How long it takes them to do so? How much debt they graduate with? And how their education’s value in the marketplace justifies both this debt and the state’s investment in their education?
The “completion agenda” represents just one set of questions that have defined national and state policy discussions in higher education recently. Others include: How competitive is our workforce? How do we rank in percentage of adults with a college education? What about the STEM fields? And why don’t governors think more highly of psychology majors?
There are questions around financing: In the public sector, a long-term trend to defunding colleges and universities was greatly accelerated by the recession, resulting in substantial unfunded growth and cost shifting to students, even as some boards and governors challenge the moves to increase tuition to offset some of the losses. (At Valencia, we have taken 25 percent of the cost per FTE in constant dollars out of the college in just five years. And the percentages of funds coming from students and the state have virtually reversed, with nearly two-thirds coming from tuition, only a third from the state of Florida. Yet our governor stood in front of us recently and said with all sincerity that he didn’t understand why our colleges wanted to raise tuition on the poor working families of Florida.)
And these long-term funding challenges are exacerbated by the fact that we are competing for state revenue with voracious entitlement programs consuming an extraordinary share of total state revenues that won’t recover to 2007 levels until sometime in 2015 or 2016, if then.
At the national level we have deep partisan differences over financial aid policy and deep concern over mounting student debt, yet no consensus on meaningful solutions that could protect students from the more unsavory edges of the industry and allow for rational pricing and positioning by colleges and universities in 50 states.
But with all of this to worry and whine about, few of us have been welcomed to work as negatively as my good friend Richard. Note that the big Texas “howdy” from the business leadership of the state was about completions – or rather the lack of them.
This concern with completion has real legs. As the feds measure our work (something that has never been done well, for which we share in the blame), even the most selective colleges complete barely three in four of their students; state universities closer to one in two, and community colleges, one in three. Not much to brag about.
And given that the national goal of increasing the percentage of working Americans with a degree depends very heavily on enrolling and graduating many more nontraditional students, we might draw special attention to the challenges of the community colleges, where more than half of all college students begin their educations, and where 80 percent of the underrepresented, the poor, and the first-generation students are served. If they are to be enfranchised at all (and we need them to be, since, as was once said, demographics is destiny), we need them to experience pathways to deep learning, progression, graduation, and further education. Everyone, from the White House to the major foundations, to the associations and the policy mavens around Dupont Circle, is talking about this.
So here is the challenge we face as an industry: We are being asked to achieve much better results with fewer resources to engage a needier student population in an atmosphere of serious skepticism where all journalism is yellow and our larger society no longer exempts our institutions (nor us) from the deep distrust that has grown toward all institutions.
If we don’t produce, we’re all going to have toxic billboards to deal with.
But this brings us back to our story. This particular story played out in Austin, Texas, a place that is a tremendous success story precisely because of the connection of higher education to an innovation economy, a place of extraordinary talent and extraordinary tools for developing that talent. Austin is a place that has everything in the world to celebrate about its higher education community and where a good percentage of the households are deeply connected to higher education in one way or another. The harsh criticism came from a place of deep affection for higher education, from our friends and supporters, and is therefore even harder to dismiss or ignore.
As I looked deeper into the story, I discovered a few important themes for our ongoing work, principles that can inform our work toward improving our results and help us to move the needle on student completion.
The first principle is this:
1. Be careful what and how you are measuring -- it is sure to be misused.
My friend Richard’s answer was subtle and clever, disarming the reporters who were surely expecting a defensive response. And he would be the last to tell you he was satisfied with their current completion rates. But the fact is, if one defines completion at Austin Community College to mean graduation OR successful transfer, the rate goes from under four percent to 43 percent -‐ still not as high as ACC aspires to achieve, but hardly worthy of a nasty billboard.
The fact is, “completion” remains a largely undefined term, especially in the minds of the press and the public. Current practice identifies first-time, full-time students as they enter the higher education system and tracks them through a single institution for s specified period of time. We can all name the many deficiencies in the measure. Consider a student who comes to a community college, enrolls full-time, and after a year of successful study is encouraged to transfer to another college. This student is considered a noncompleter at the community college and isn’t considered in the measure of the receiving institution at all. This is, in fact, the way Richard himself attended college, and doubtless many others.
Is there any good reason to exclude part-time students from the measures? How about early transfers? Should non-degree-seeking students be in the measure? When is a student considered to be degree‐seeking? How are the measures, inevitably used to compare institutions with very different missions, calibrated to those missions? How can transfer be included in the assessment and reporting when students swirl among so many institutions, many of which don’t share student unit record information easily? And once a student transfers, who owns baccalaureate completion as an outcome for transfers? Is it really just the receiving institution? Should the mission of helping the 30 million adults in America, with some college but no degree, be represented in the measures? We could all name many other measurement issues.
So here are some further principles in the area of metrics:
2. Measure for improvement.
Performance measures like completion, at their best, should be designed and published primarily for the purpose of improving performance – pointing to alterable variables, measuring in ways that account for varying missions. For this reason, they will have to be much more granular. What’s the point of telling a college-ready student that the total completion rate at a college is 30 percent, when it is actually 60 percent for students like her? And how much more helpful to the college it is to calculate completions for different groups depending on their starting points as they plan their interventions.
3. College outcomes measures should be based on college-ready students.
Including both those who came out of high school performing on college level and those who required some or even substantial preparation after arriving at college in a single measure conflates the data in ways that obscures the real opportunities for improvement. Outcomes for “developmental students” should be separately reported as a pre-college program of the college. The two are connected, of course, but downstream performance of developmental completers, especially when compared to college ready students, is primarily a measure of developmental program performance, not the collegiate program.
The whole area of developmental education or remediation is deeply misunderstood, largely caused by further conflating data from very different student groups – those who need very little attention to brush up lost skills, typically in math (about a third of our developmental students) with those who need very deep remediation for skills never acquired (about a fifth of our developmental students), and a large group of those in between.
Further, the challenge is sensationalized by naïve or perverted use of the numbers – the truth is, at Valencia and other large urban colleges like us, only 8 percent of our total effort, our total credit hours, is in developmental education (down from 12 percent just a few years ago.) This is important work, but needs to be measured and understood in context.
4. Align accountability measures to the proper level of analysis.
We need informed policy makers who will understand the difference in accountability at the institutional, programmatic, course, and faculty levels. It is difficult to explain to a policy maker just how boneheaded the idea of measuring individual faculty performance based on employer feedback really is without also being overtly insulting. Some days I vote for insulting.
5. Performance measures should primarily be value-added.
We should embrace the movement toward value‐added measures of institutional performance. Continuing to perpetuate the myth that excellence equals exclusivity has always been a thoughtless maneuver, no better than suggesting that the best way to improve our prisons is to incarcerate a higher level of inmate. This alone would constitute a major step toward aligning institutional measures with mission, and can be successfully replicated at the program level.
But let us get back to our story. The low graduation rates for AA students at Austin Community College were real and deeply troubling to Richard and the whole college, in spite of the very strong transfer numbers.
Here’s the rest of the story.
In the greater Austin area, the economic region that is the envy of so many other medium-sized cities, I am familiar with a large number of other colleges of virtually every type: large public universities, small, extremely selective and expensive independents, moderately selective and moderately affordable colleges, both public and private, and so on. I looked at the websites of more than a dozen of these colleges and universities. Here is what I found: if they gave any indication at all of being willing to accept transfer students, they were quite clear in this: no degree is required for transfer. No degree is required for transfer. Further, the majority clearly discouraged students from taking more than a few courses before transferring – and for good reasons. The whole chaotic jumble of articulation agreements, many of them at the department-to-department level rather than college to college, leave students with the rational preference of transferring before taking courses that may not apply to their major, depending on the department and college and university to which they may want to transfer.
Finally, on this, let me say that nearly every college president I know underestimates the importance of transfer in her own institution, both transfer out and in, four-year to four-year, two-year to four-year, and even four-year to two-year. So our sixth principle is this:
6. Think educational ecosystem, not just institution.
Our students are not experiencing us just as single institutions, but as ecosystems or networks of higher education institutions, generally in a reasonably well-defined region. They swirl in and among, stop out, start back, change majors, change departments, change colleges. And because this was exceptional 50 years ago, when we were in college, we continue to think it is the exception. It is now the norm and likely to remain so. For policy makers, decisions on the outcomes of investing in higher education will need to be framed around the ecosystems. Governing boards and institutional leaders have to move past antiquated notions of competition in higher education – especially competition for resources based on deeply flawed metrics – toward collaborative design of the systems and their multiple interactions. Articulation of credit will have to give way to carefully designed pathways that deepen student learning and accelerate their progression to completion.
If we are to improve what students experience, what students achieve, we need to begin to think ecosystems, design ecosystems, and measure results as ecosystems. This is very difficult to do, as there is scarcely any institution in the universe as self-absorbed as a college or university. (Not mine, of course, but yours is!)
Even accreditation works against this kind of thinking. Heaven forbid that we study the pathways students are creating for themselves and smooth the way with curricular decisions that make sense for them over the objections of a committee, or even blur the organizational lines, contract for parts of the instruction, or share faculty in new ways. These things will certainly raise questions of institutional control of instruction, and we can’t have that now, can we?
Finally, let me draw out one more principle on completion:
7. The most important person to care about completion is the student.
When we send messages through narrow institutional habit, or untested bias, or just ordinary inertia that tell students not to bother to graduate, they actually hear us. Perhaps the history and politics of educational competition in Austin, into which I won’t go for the moment, contributes to this situation. But even in the best of situations for transfer, arguably Florida, the messages aren’t all that much better.
In Florida, we have the country’s strongest 2+2 system of higher education. Several of the state universities were started as upper-division only (though they didn’t stay that way for very long). We have a common course numbering system that greatly aids in the transfer of credit; we have, in statute and practice, a statewide articulation coordination council with representatives of all the sectors; we have statewide articulation agreements that work; and we have a long history of successful transfer of students with rich data on their success after transfer.
Yet, as once nearly open-door universities grew to a scale that is almost mind-boggling and began to shift their strategies toward selectivity, this is the value proposition our students were beginning to hear:
“Enroll in your local community college; it’s cheap and convenient and classes are small. And when you are ready, apply to the state universities – somewhere in Florida there is one that should take you and your credits.”
Notice, the value proposition to the student – the one who needs to care about completion – says nothing about graduating.
Several years ago, this situation began to create real challenges for us in central Florida. Fortunately, we had a very healthy higher education ecosystem, with already-established communications channels that were effective and working on behalf of our students and the regional economy. Out of that kind of thinking, we were able to design a new model that goes way beyond articulation of credit.
Called “Direct Connect,” it is an ironclad guarantee to the students of the four community colleges in the region that our graduates MUST be accepted at UCF. If you have an AA degree from Valencia or Seminole State, or Brevard, or Lake Sumter, you are guaranteed admission to UCF -- a highly selective university. This model is unprecedented. This changed the value proposition to the students rather dramatically. It isn’t a “maybe,” or a “we’ll see. “ It is something they can count on, plan for, and commit to. Earn the degree and you are in.
It gives students a reason to graduate. Over the last four years for which we have complete data, our enrollment grew about 40 percent. Our completions in AS and certificate programs grew about 60 percent. And our graduations with AA degrees grew 97 percent.
Our students experience their higher educations, not as alma mater, but as an ecosystem of programs, learning environments and collaborative institutions through which we have created pathways they can more clearly navigate to their real goals. Our metrics, our strategic plans, our inter-institutional agreements, our policies, and our staff relationships need to reflect this.
One final word on the “Completion Agenda,” and this is for those who are already committed to moving the needle: See a reason and a need to move the needle, no matter what sector you are in.
8. Learning comes before completion.
Why is this important? Because we need our faculty to engage if we are really going to move the needle. Completion really doesn’t engage faculty. Learning does. But more importantly, the country has got the wrong working theory about completion. It seems to go like this: “If more students completed college, they will have learned more, will contribute more to the local economy and community, and that would be a good thing.”
The theory is subtly, but clearly incorrect. It should go like this:
“If more students learned deeply and effectively in a systematic program of study, with a clearer sense of purpose in their studies and their lives, more would graduate and contribute to the local economy and community, and that would be a good thing.”
The degree is a means to an end. Relevant, deep learning is the end. This requires curriculum that is a coherent program of learning, not just a collection of articulated credits. It requires well structured, easily communicated pathways that students can follow to the ultimate end. And it requires genuine collaboration across institutional boundaries that will change the focus from institutional self‐absorption to a learner-centered strategy. In short, this requires ecosystems thinking.
My friend, Richard, is already practicing this kind of thinking and relationship-building in his area of service. It will dramatically alter the results for the better at Austin Community College. I have reason to hope that opinion leaders in the national conversation on completion will follow suit, if we, higher education leaders and practitioners, will lead the way. Let’s engage our state leaders, our accrediting bodies, our trustees and governors, our foundation partners, and, most importantly our institutions and students, in ecosystems thinking.
Here are just a few concrete suggestions:
Add to the old model of articulation of credit the much more powerful model of intelligent design of degree pathways across institutional boundaries.
Within these pathways, encourage students to make earlier, more grounded choices of major long before transfer looms.
Require completion of the associates degree prior to transfer and provide a meaningful value proposition to students who do graduate before transfer – a guarantee, if you can.
Federate our data on student performance across institutional boundaries and develop ecosystem-level research agendas with collaborating institutional research teams that will lead to improved student learning and performance.
Rethink the metrics used for measuring institutional performance as components of a larger ecosystem and develop measures of the larger ecosystem performance, as well.
Finally, use as your design principle for all of this work a touchstone that has served us well as we have achieved dramatic improvements in student learning and completion: The college is what the students experience. It is how they experience us that counts, not how we experience them. If we design our programs, systems, and ecosystems to what we want students to experience – deep, relevant, coherent learning and completion – they and we have a much better chance of achieving our goals.
Sanford C. Shugart is president of Valencia College, in Florida. This essay is adapted from a speech he gave at the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges.
Historians of this period, possessing the clearsightedness that only time provides, will likely point to online learning as the disruptive technology platform that radically changed higher education, which had remained largely unchanged since the cathedral schools of medieval Europe -- football, beer pong and food courts notwithstanding.
Online learning is already well-understood, well-established and well-respected by those who genuinely know it. But what we now see in higher education is a new wave of innovation that uses online learning, or at least aspects of it, as a starting point. The meteoric growth of the for-profit sector, the emergence of MOOCs, new self-paced competency-based programs, adaptive learning environments, peer-to-peer learning platforms, third-party service providers, the end of geographic limitations on program delivery and more all spring from the maturation of online learning and the technology that supports it. Online learning has provided a platform for rethinking delivery models and much of accreditation is not designed to account for these new approaches.
Until now, regional accreditation has been based on a review of an integrated organization and its activities: the college or university. These were largely cohesive and relatively easy to understand organizational structures where almost everything was integrated to produce the learning experience and degree. Accreditation is now faced with assessing learning in an increasingly disaggregated world with organizations that are increasingly complex, or at least differently complex, including shifting roles, new stakeholders and participants, various contractual obligations and relationships, and new delivery models. There is likely to be increasing pressure for accreditation to move from looking only at the overall whole, the institution, to include smaller parts within the whole or alternatives to the whole: perhaps programs, providers and offerings other than degrees and maybe provided by entities other than traditional institutions. In other words, in an increasingly disaggregated world does accreditation need to become more disaggregated as well?
Take the emergence of competency-based education, which is more profound – if less discussed – than massive open online courses (MOOCs). Our own competency-based program, College for America (CfA), is the first of its kind to so wholly move from any anchoring to the three-credit hour Carnegie Unit that pervades higher education (shaping workload, units of learning, resource allocation, space utilization, salary structures, financial aid regulations, transfer policies, degree definitions and more). The irony of the three-credit hour is that it fixes time while it leaves variable the actual learning. In other words, we are really good at telling the world how long students have sat at their desks and we are really quite poor at saying how much they have learned or even what they learned. Competency-based education flips the relationship and says let time be variable, but make learning well-defined, fixed and non-negotiable.
In our CfA program, there are no courses. There are 120 competencies – “can do” statements, if you will – precisely defined by well-developed rubrics. Students demonstrate mastery of those competencies through completion of “tasks” that are then assessed by faculty reviewers using the rubrics. Students can’t “slide by” with a C or a B; they have either mastered the competencies or they are still working on them. When they are successful, the assessments are maintained in a web-based portfolio as evidence of learning. Students can begin with any competency at any level (there are three levels moving from smaller, simpler competencies to higher level, complicated competencies) and go as fast or as slow as they need to be successful. We offer the degree for $2,500 per year, so an associate degree for $5,000 if a student takes two years and for as little as $1,250 if they complete in just six months (an admittedly formidable task for most). CfA is the first program of its kind to be approved by a regional accreditor, NEASC in our case, and is the first to seek approval for Title IV funding through the “direct assessment of learning” provisions. At the time of this writing, CfA has successfully passed the first stage review by the Department of Education and is still moving through the approval process.
The radical possibility offered in the competency-based movement is that traditional higher education may lose its monopoly on delivery models. Accreditors have for some time put more emphasis on learning outcomes and assessment, but the competency-based education movement privileges them above all else. When we excel at both defining and assessing learning, we open up enormous possibilities for new delivery models, creativity and innovation. It’s not a notion that most incumbent providers welcome, but in terms of finding new answers to the cost, access, quality, productivity and relevance problems that are reaching crisis proportions in higher education, competency-based education may be the most dramatic development in higher education in hundreds of years. For example, the path to legitimacy for MOOCs probably lies in competency-based approaches, and while they can readily tackle the outcomes or competency side of the equation, they still face formidable challenges of reliable, trustworthy and rigorous assessment at scale (at least while trying to remain free). Well-developed competency-based approaches can also help undergird the badges movement, demanding that such efforts be transparent about the claims associated with a badge and the assessments used to validate learning or mastery.
Competency-based education may also provide accreditors with a framework for more fundamentally rethinking assessment. It would shift accreditation to looking much harder at learning outcomes and competencies, the claims an entity is making for the education it provides and for the mechanisms it uses for knowing and demonstrating that the learning has occurred. The good news here is that such a dual focus would free accreditors from so much attention on inputs, like organization, stakeholder roles and governance, and instead allow for the emergence of all sorts of new delivery models. The bad news is that we are still working on how to craft well designed learning outcomes and conduct effective assessment. It’s harder than many think. A greater focus on outcomes and assessment also begs other important questions for accreditors:
How will they rethink standards to account for far more complex and disaggregated business models which might have a mix of “suppliers,” some for-profit and some nonprofit, and which look very different from traditional institutions?
Will they only accredit institutions or does accreditation have to be disaggregated too? Might there by multiple forms of accreditation: for institutions, for programs, for courses, for MOOCs, for badges and so on? At what level of granularity?
CBE programs are coming. College for America is one example, but other institutions have announced efforts in this area. Major foundations are lining up behind the effort (most notably the Lumina and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations), and the Department of Education appears to be relying on accreditors to attest to the quality and rigor of those programs. While the Department of Education is moving cautiously on this question, accreditors might want to think through what a world untethered to the credit hour might look like. Might there be two paths to accreditation: the traditional “institutional path” and the “competency-based education path,” with the former looking largely unchanged and the latter using rigorous outcomes and assessment review to support more innovation than current standards now do? Innovation theory would predict that new innovative CBE accreditation pathway would come to improve the incumbent accreditation processes and standards.
This last point is important: accreditors need to think about their relationship to innovation. If the standards are largely built to assess incumbent models and enforced by incumbents, they must be by their very nature conservative and in service of the status quo. Yet the nation is in many ways frustrated with the status quo and unwilling to support it in the old ways. Frankly, they believe we are failing, and the ways they think we are failing depend on whom you ask. But never has the popular press (and thus the public and policy makers) been so consumed with the problems of traditional higher education and intrigued by the alternatives. In some ways, accreditors are being asked to shift or at least expand their role to accommodate these new models.
If regional accreditors are unable to rise to that challenge they might see new alternative accreditors emerge and be left tethered to incumbent models that are increasingly less relevant or central to how higher education takes place 10 years from now. There is time. As has been said, we frequently overestimate the amount of change in the next two years and the dramatically underestimate the amount of change in the next 10. The time is now for regional accreditors to re-engineer the paths to accreditation. In doing so they can not only be ready for that future, they can help usher it into reality.
Paul J. LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University. This essay is adapted from writing produced for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges as part of a convening to look at the future of accreditation. WASC has given permission for it to be shared more widely and without restriction.
With great fanfare and big names in the student learning world behind it, the Lumina Foundation two years ago unveiled its Degree Qualifications Profile with the hope that it would prod faculty members and college leaders to better define and drive their students to show what they should know and be able to do at various degree levels. Despite experimentation on scores of campuses and by accreditors and others, the profile's impact has been muted, and in a new paper released today by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, two of the crafters of the profile, Peter Ewell and Carol Geary Schneider, seek to give faculty members and administrators reasons (and tools) to embrace its use.
Both Ewell's paper, which is the core of the document, and Schneider's afterword, subtly concede that the degree profile has not been fully accepted or understood. Ewell offers a "tasting menu" of practical ways that faculty members and institutions can develop "the needed assignments, examination questions, and projects that enable the collection of meaningful evidence of student mastery," the profile's underlying goal. Contrary to the widely assumed view (from some faculty critics) that the profile is designed to lead to a standardized, reductionist way of capturing student learning, Ewell writes, "engaging assessment in the context of the DQP requires faculty to be much more systematic and intentional than is currently the case at most colleges and universities."
Schneider more pointedly seeks to understand and explain why the degree profile "faces very real challenges" on campuses, which she attributes largely to faculty fears about standardization and the fragmented way (in departments, programs, etc.) learning is delivered on many campuses. The profile, she writes, "is a bold effort to help higher education move beyond credit hours to competency and beyond the fragmented learning too many students experience to intentionally preparing students to integrate and apply their learning to unscripted problems and responsibilities."
Maybe going to college is not such a great idea. Two years ago the entrepreneur Peter Thiel put up money that paid outstanding high school students to pursue paths and projects away from a college campus. Now, a flurry of articles report about bright, enthusiastic high school students who consciously reject going to college. The latest example is Alex Williams’s “The Old College Try? No Way!” in The New York Times that includes a caption proclaiming that for high achievers, “College is for suckers!” This “case against college” may be heretical to our higher education orthodoxy. But it is not new.
From 1870 to 1890, enrollments at most colleges declined even though the national population grew. College presidents were perplexed about the loss of appeal “going to college” held for young Americans. The School of Hard Knocks trumped the College of Liberal Arts if you were an inventor or an investor. Ambitious young Americans wanted to get on with their pursuits and profits. They saw four years of college as lost time and wasted opportunity.
Even the learned professions of medicine and law seldom required a college education – or even a high school diploma. And, for most 18-year-olds whose parents were farmers or shopkeepers, you had to stay home to help with the family business. Tuition was not an obstacle because it was incredibly cheap – seldom more than $100 per year. When college presidents made desperate offers to attract students by lowering tuition and waiving entrance examinations, there were few takers and lots of empty classroom seats. College officials failed to understand that for most American families the loss of a child’s earnings was a more important consideration than even no tuition charge in making a decisive case against college.
But that was then and this is now. The current advocates for the case against college may be correct in pointing out that a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs did not need a college degree to be successful. What this ignores is that the overall strength of American higher education in the 20th century has been less spectacular yet important -- namely, to educate for civil society and expertise.
It was true not only for preparing young people for law and medicine, but also pharmacy, engineering, physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, teaching, social work, clergy, nursing, accounting, forestry, public health and other professionals – and at the same time helping to educate them to be concerned, informed citizens -- that would lead and staff new organizations in the public and private sector and as concerned, informed citizens.
Let’s reconsider Steven Jobs’s memorable 2005 Stanford commencement speech as Exhibit A in the case against college. First, Jobs did not opt not to go to college. He went to Reed College and dropped out – a very different life choice than not going to college at all. Second, even after dropping out, he stayed close to the Reed College campus – its students, faculty, resources and opportunities – all to his educational and vocational gain. Third, his explanation for dropping out – disorientation and uncertainty – probably were signs that a liberal education was prompting him to consider and confront complex questions of purpose and place. Perhaps Reed College was “doing its job” for Jobs?
Above all, doesn’t it seem strange and conveniently safe that Steven Jobs gave his inspirational talk to Stanford graduates who momentarily would receive their coveted Stanford degrees? I wager that most in that audience were delighted with Jobs’s message urging them to pursue their dreams – and equally delighted that they were buoyed by the experience, friendships, faculty and learning -- and degree -- on all counts that going to college had made opportune. The Steven Jobs inspirational talk would have been more compelling as a “case against college” had he chosen to deliver it to 16-year-olds at, e.g., Oakland Tech. But he didn’t – and for good reason.
Whether in 1880 or 2012, the historical message is that there are good reasons to go -- or not to go -- to college. And, given the diversity of American higher education, the choices are complicated by the options of where to go – such as two-year vocational vs. four-year liberal arts college or small campus versus large flagship state university -- and what to study, and for what end – an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, or perhaps prelude to an advanced degree. We also have in the United States a long tradition of some professions such as performing arts and major league baseball where one need not first have a college education. The spate of current articles do not make the case against college – they make a case, or several cases, depending on an individual’s situation and goals. A maxim of societal behavior is that strident advocacy makes a point and at the same time fosters alternative and counter points.
In sum, the fervent articles denigrating college unwittingly make indirect and direct cases of numerous good reasons to go to college. Why, of course, the exceptional genius does not need the delay of required courses. Partying by 20-year-olds is going to take place at sports bars quite apart from being enrolled in college. In fact, most accounts of Silicon Valley successful entrepreneurs suggests that unabashed partying is par for their course. So, why begrudge that or dismiss that as a nuisance and distraction linked exclusively to undergraduate life?
But even an icon such as Mark Zuckerberg did gain from going to Harvard by finding the name and inspiration for “Facebook” – not from Philosophy 101 but from the booklets distributed during freshman orientation week. How to calculate the net worth of that informal collegiate experience? And for the multitude of bright, talented committed high school graduates who were not selected for Peter Thiel’s highly selective program, might not there be a thoughtful choice about college that just might provide some good learning and opportunities?
The net result is that we do not have “The Case” against college – but the more subtle, provocative question of many cases for and against going to college as befits a complex, diverse and credentialed American society. Maybe going to college is not such a great idea. Maybe not going to college is not such a great idea.
John Thelin is a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky. He is author of A History of American Higher Education, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
The Widget Theory of Higher Education is widely accepted, but curiously enough it is never articulated, except perhaps indirectly. However, it can be deduced from the practices that spring from it. The growing application of the unstated theory suggests strongly that it is deserving of exposition.
The Widget Theory of Higher Education is that a college or university is a manufacturing enterprise that produces products called academic degrees in basically the same way as a company such as Universal Widgets, Inc. produces widgets. Like widgets, academic degrees come in several models and price ranges. They are known as baccalaureates, master's degrees, and doctorates. And, like Universal Widgets, Inc., colleges and universities produce these degrees for a market -- the job market.
It is well-known and well-accepted that the more cheaply Universal Widgets, Inc. can produce a marketable line of widgets, the more efficient and cost-effective the company and therefore the more successful it is. Under the Widget Theory of Higher Education, the more cheaply a college or university can produce marketable baccalaureate, master's and doctoral degrees, the more efficient and cost-effective the institution. It is a basic premise under the theory that if two colleges or universities produce the same degree, the one that produces it more cheaply is the better institution. It is more cost-effective.
The theory is very straightforward. Management is very important in widget production and, under the theory, it is equally important in the production of academic degrees. Good modern management systems ensure more efficiency and greater cost-effectiveness. Overproduction of widgets, that is, production of more widgets than the market can absorb, is very bad. It is a sign of bad management. Unsold widgets are either dumped on the market, driving the price down, or they are warehoused and eventually written down as unsold inventory.
Under the theory, overproduction of degrees is also very bad. A college or university that produces a degree for which there is no job is not cost-effective and obviously not well-managed. Some critics of the theory have pointed out that degrees produced in excess of market demand are, unlike widgets, able to penetrate other markets. But no one has found a way to warehouse surplus degrees. It is not that they are perishable -- quite the contrary -- they just will not stay in warehouses.
Some visionaries have advanced the extraordinary idea that an academic degree may have some intrinsic value over and above its value in the job market -- a reserve value, one might say. However, that is an impractical idea because there is no accounting system accepted by the Financial Accounting Standards Board that permits recognition of this "reserve value" in a prospectus, annual report, or Form 10-K. We are all hoping, however, that the Securities and Exchange Commission, after they have perfected the new method of accounting for oil and gas producers known as RRA (Reserve Recognition Accounting) will apply their innovative genius to the problem of reserve values in college and university degrees. It would be a great contribution. Surely, if a way is found to state values of undeveloped prospectable oil and gas acreage and undeveloped reserves, it may be possible to put a reserve value on the intellectual illumination and enlightenment that comes from a university education.
Universal Widgets, Inc. through its new management system, has focused on quality control. The company is committed to the proposition that if it can produce a superior line of widgets without raising the price, it will control a larger segment of the market. Behind a vigorous advertising slogan that asserts forcefully NOT ALL WIDGETS ARE ALIKE, the company has tested its widgets under a wide range of stresses and conditions. The effort has been successful as demonstrated by market surveys that prove Universal Widgets are more highly regarded and more in demand than other widgets.
It is this same quality issue, however, that has caused the greatest uncertainty about the Widget Theory of Higher Education. Indeed, it is difficult to accommodate within the Widget Theory of Higher Education the notion that within the same model line all degrees are not alike, that is, that they are not manufactured to a standard. Let me illustrate. Let us say, for example, that we want to measure the cost-effectiveness of universities producing doctorates. The method is to count the number of doctorates produced in the fiscal year and divide that number into the total cost of production. The university that has the lowest unit cost per doctorate is clearly the most cost-effective and therefore the best managed. A university that produces more doctorates per year per employee (has a higher student-faculty ratio) is a leaner, tighter organization than one producing fewer doctorates per employee (has a lower student-faculty ratio).
This is quite contrary to the academic dogma, which holds that a lower student-faculty ratio (smaller classes) leads to greater teaching effectiveness. However -- if we accept the radical notion that not all doctorates are alike, that a doctorate in history is not the same as a doctorate in computer science, and then add a further perturbation by accepting the notion that a doctorate in computer science from one university might be a better product than one from another university -- the accounting system cannot handle the complexity. We would need a nationwide system of academic accounting standards against which the quality of degrees can be tested before it would be possible to get at cost-effectiveness.
Failing such a sophisticated accounting system, academic accountants, despite criticism of the Widget Theory of Higher Education, must continue to count all baccalaureate, master's and doctoral degrees as basic production units that are inherently the same within the model line. Of course, the market makes its own judgment about the differences in quality among academic degrees with the same brand name. Regrettably, these judgments have not been included in cost-effectiveness studies.
I have presented the Widget Theory of Higher Education as a little satire.
But -- there is no doubt in my mind that the struggle for excellence in higher education over the next decades will be a struggle against the Widget Theory of Higher Education and against those who knowingly or unknowingly espouse it.
If you think I exaggerate, read the reports of state and federal agencies that deal with degrees as production units. Read the texts of the management experts who offer cost-effectiveness to colleges and universities.
I stand on the reality that there is no way to measure the social benefit that derives from a cultivated mind. Even the very young mind of a recent graduate with just a few furrows broken in what may become a fertile intellectual field is a social asset of great potential worth. There is no way to measure the social benefit that comes from a first-class intelligence touching and awakening young minds in the classroom or in the laboratory or in the studio. There is no way to measure the social benefit that comes from enhancing the ability of a human being to think, and to adapt, and to function in society.
There is no way in the accounting sense to put a value on knowledge and inquiry and judgment. But our inability to measure, our inability to quantify qualities, does not mean that the value, the benefit of higher education is not real. What we produce in our colleges and universities is worth far more to society than a widget, or an individual to fill a particular job -- what we produce is tomorrow's world -- the people and the knowledge that in large part will shape what is to come.
The Widget Theory of Higher Education, if accepted by the people, will mean that ultimately our highest form of education will be a Job Corps. But it will be cost-effective. We will be able to measure all the inputs and outputs. And, ironically, our enormous loss will not show up on any social balance sheet. History will simply record a society that came to less.
Universities can be cost-effective, indeed they must be -- but the driving energy for cost-effectiveness must be the achievement of excellence and not simply conformity with an accounting system that counts only degrees and bodies and dollars.
Universities can be well-managed, indeed they must be -- but the management objective must be excellence and not simply conformity with an accounting system that cannot distinguish quality from mediocrity from fraud.
And if we cannot design an accounting system sophisticated enough to include the element of quality -- well, then we may just have to stay with academic tradition and rely on the judgment of academicians who can distinguish excellence from mediocrity and sense from nonsense.
Peter T. Flawn is president emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin. This essay is adapted from remarks he gave in San Antonio in 1979 at a meeting of the University of Texas Arts and Sciences Foundation.
Submitted by Paul Fain on December 21, 2012 - 3:00am
Late Wednesday the U.S. Senate passed legislation aimed at requiring colleges to be more transparent about how they serve veterans. The bill, which was approved during gridlock on Capitol Hill, had received broad support from veterans' groups, for-profit institutions and advocates for traditional higher education. First introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Florida Republican, the legislation was less sweeping than a related Senate bill that quickly stalled.