A central tenet of the student learning outcomes "movement" is that higher education institutions must articulate a specific set of skills, traits and/or dispositions that all of its students will learn before graduation. Then, through legitimate means of measurement, institutions must assess and publicize the degree to which its students make gains on each of these outcomes.
Although many institutions have yet to implement this concept fully (especially regarding the thorough assessment of institutional outcomes), this idea is more than just a suggestion. Each of the regional accrediting bodies now requires institutions to identify specific learning outcomes and demonstrate evidence of outcomes assessment as a standard of practice.
This approach to educational design seems at the very least reasonable. All students, regardless of major, need a certain set of skills and aptitudes (things like critical thinking, collaborative leadership, intercultural competence) to succeed in life as they take on additional professional responsibilities, embark (by choice or by circumstance) on a new career, or address a daunting civic or personal challenge. In light of the educational mission our institutions espouse, committing ourselves to a set of learning outcomes for all students seems like what we should have been doing all along.
Yet too often the outcomes that institutions select to represent the full scope of their educational mission, and the way that those institutions choose to assess gains on those outcomes, unwittingly limit their ability to fulfill the mission they espouse. For when institutions narrow their educational vision to a discrete set of skills and dispositions that can be presented, performed or produced at the end of an undergraduate assembly line, they often do so at the expense of their own broader vision that would cultivate in students a self-sustaining approach to learning. What we measure dictates the focus of our efforts to improve.
As such, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the educational structure that currently produces majors and minors in content areas is simply replaced by one that produces majors and minors in some newly chosen learning outcomes. Instead of redesigning the college learning experience to alter the lifetime trajectory of an individual, we allow the whole to be nothing more than the sum of the parts -- because all we have done is swap one collection of parts for another. Although there may be value in establishing and implementing a threshold of competence for a bachelor’s degree (for which a major serves a legitimate purpose), limiting ourselves to this framework fails to account for the deeply held belief that a college experience should approach learning as a process -- one that is cumulative, iterative, multidimensional and, most importantly, self-sustaining long beyond graduation.
The disconnect between our conception of a college education as a process and our tendency to track learning as a finite set of productions (outcomes) is particularly apparent in the way that we assess our students’ development as lifelong learners. Typically, we measure this construct with a pre-test and a post-test that tracks learning gains between the years of 18 and 22 -- hardly a lifetime (the fact that a few institutions gather data from alumni 5 and 10 years after graduation doesn’t invalidate the larger point).
Under these conditions, trying to claim empirically that (1) an individual has developed and maintained a perpetual interest in learning throughout their life, and that (2) this lifelong approach is directly attributable to one’s undergraduate education probably borders on the delusional. The complexity of life even under the most mundane of circumstances makes such a hypothesis deeply suspect. Yet we all know of students that experienced college as a process through which they found a direction that excited them and a momentum that carried them down a purposeful path that extended far beyond commencement.
I am by no means suggesting that institutions should abandon assessing learning gains on a given set of outcomes. On the contrary, we should expect no less of ourselves than substantial growth in all of our students as a result of our efforts. Designed appropriately, a well-organized sequence of outcomes assessment snapshots can provide information vital to tracking student learning over time and potentially increasing institutional effectiveness. However, because the very act of learning occurs (as the seminal developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky would describe it) in a state of perpetual social interaction, taking stock of the degree to which we foster a robust learning process is at least as important as taking snapshots of learning outcomes if we hope to gather information that helps us improve.
If you think that assessing learning outcomes effectively is difficult, then assessing the quality of the learning process ought to send chills down even the most skilled assessment coordinator’s spine. Defining and measuring the nature of process requires a very different conception of assessment – and for that matter a substantially more complex understanding of learning outcomes.
Instead of merely measuring what is already in the rearview mirror (i.e., whatever has already been acquired), assessing the college experience as a process requires a look at the road ahead, emphasizing the connection between what has already occurred and what is yet to come. In other words, assessment of the learning that results from a given experience would include the degree to which a student is prepared or “primed” to make the most of a future learning experience (either one that is intentionally designed to follow immediately, or one that is likely to occur somewhere down the road). Ultimately, this approach would substantially improve our ability to determine the degree to which we are preparing students to approach life in a way that is thoughtful, pro-actively adaptable, and even nimble in the face of both unforeseen opportunity and sudden disappointment.
Of course, this idea runs counter to the way that we typically organize our students’ postsecondary educational experience. For if we are going to track the degree to which a given experience “primes” students for subsequent experiences -- especially subsequent experiences that occur during college -- then the educational experience can’t be so loosely constructed that the number of potential variations in the order of a student experiences virtually equals the number of students enrolled at our institution.
This doesn’t mean that we return to the days in which every student took the same courses at the same time in the same order, but it does require an increased level of collective commitment to the intentional design of the student experience, a commitment to student-centered learning that will likely come at the expense of an individual instructor’s or administrator’s preference for which courses they teach or programs they lead and when they might be offered.
The other serious challenge is the act of operationalizing a concept of assessment that attempts to directly measure an individual’s preparation to make the most of a subsequent educational experience. But if we want to demonstrate the degree to which a college experience is more than just a collection of gains on disparate outcomes – whether these outcomes are somehow connected or entirely independent of each other – then we have to expand our approach to include process as well as product.
Only then can we actually demonstrate that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, that in fact the educational process is the glue that fuses those disparate parts into a greater -- and qualitatively distinct -- whole.
Mark Salisbury is director of institutional research and assessment at Augustana College, in Illinois. He blogs at Delicious Ambiguity.
A recent research paper published by the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education and reported on by Inside Higher Ed criticized states' efforts to fund higher education based in part on outcomes, in addition to enrollment. The authors, David Tandberg and Nicholas Hillman, hoped to provide a "cautionary tale" for those looking to performance funding as a "quick fix."
While we agree that performance-based funding is not the only mechanism for driving change, what we certainly do not need are impulsive conclusions that ignore positive results and financial context. With serious problems plaguing American higher education, accompanied by equally serious efforts across the country to address them, it is disheartening to see a flawed piece of research mischaracterize the work on finance reform and potentially set back one important effort, among many, to improve student success in postsecondary education.
As two individuals who have studied performance funding in depth, we know that performance funding is a piece of the puzzle that can provide an intuitive, effective incentive for adopting best practices for student success and encourage others to do so. Our perspective is based on the logical belief that tying some funding dollars to results will provide an incentive to pursue those results. This approach should not be dismissed in one fell swoop.
We are dismayed that the authors were willing to assert an authoritative conclusion from such simplistic research. The study compares outcomes of states "where the policy was in force" to those where it was not -- as if "performance funding" is a monolithic policy everywhere it has been adopted.
The authors failed to differentiate among states in terms of when performance funding was implemented, how much money is at stake, whether performance funds are "add ins" or part of base funding formulas, the metrics used to define and measure "performance," and the extent to which "stop loss" provisions have limited actual change in allocations. These are critical design issues that vary widely and that have evolved dramatically over the 20-year period the authors used to decide if "the policy was in force" or not.
Treating this diverse array of unique approaches as one policy ignores the thoughtful work that educators and policy makers are currently engaged in to learn from past mistakes and to improve the design of performance funding systems. Even a well-designed study would probably fail to reveal positive impacts yet, as states are only now trying out new and better approaches -- certainly not the "rush" to adopting a "quick fix" that the authors assert. It could just as easily be argued that more traditional funding models actually harm institutions trying to make difficult and necessary changes in the best interest of students and their success (see here and here).
The simplistic approach is exacerbated by two other design problems. First, we find errors in the map indicating the status of performance funding. Texas, for example, has only recently implemented (passed in spring 2013) a performance funding model for its community colleges; it has yet to affect any budget allocations. The recommended four-year model was not passed. Washington has a small performance funding program for its two-year colleges but none for its universities. Yet the map shows both states with performance funding operational for both two-year and four-year sectors.
Second, the only outcome examined by the authors was degree completions as it "is the only measure that is common among all states currently using performance funding." While that may be convenient for running a regression analysis, it ignores current thinking about appropriate metrics that honor different institutional missions and provide useful information to drive institutional improvement. The authors make passing reference to different measures at the end of the article but made no effort to incorporate any realism or complexities into their statistical model.
On an apparent mission to discredit performance funding, the authors showed a surprising lack of curiosity about their own findings. They found eight states where performance funding had a positive, significant effect on degree production but rather than examine why that might be, they found apparent comfort in the finding that there were "far more examples" of performance funding failing the significance tests.
"While it may be worthwhile to examine the program features of those states where performance funding had a positive impact on degree completions," they write, "the overall story of our state results serves as a cautionary tale." Mission accomplished.
In their conclusion they assert that performance funding lacks "a compelling theory of action" to explain how and why it might change institutional behaviors.
We strongly disagree. The theory of action behind performance funding is simple: financial incentives shape behaviors. Anyone doubting the conceptual soundness of performance funding is, in effect, doubting that people respond to fiscal incentives. The indisputable evidence that incentives matter in higher education is the overwhelming priority and attention that postsecondary faculty and staff have placed, over the years, on increasing enrollments and meeting enrollment targets, with enrollment-driven budgets.
The logic of performance funding is simply that adding incentives for specified outcomes would encourage individuals to redirect a portion of that priority and attention to achieving those outcomes. Accepting this logic is to affirm the potential of performance funding to change institutional behaviors and student outcomes. It is not to defend any and all versions of performance funding that have been implemented, many of which have been poorly done. And it is not to criticize the daily efforts of faculty and staff, who are committed to student success but cannot be faulted for doing what matters to maintain budgets.
Surely there are other means -- and more powerful means -- to achieve state and national goals of improving student success, as the authors assert. But just as surely it makes sense to align state investments with the student success outcomes that we all seek.
Nancy Shulock is executive director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University at Sacramento, and Martha Snyder is senior associate at HCM Strategists.
In an effort to better-understand differences among student subgroups, the institutional leadership requested an analysis of engagement levels among Zombie students.
Analysis of institutional data indicates that students who self-report as Zombies also report statistically significant lower levels of engagement across a wide range of important student experiences. Many of these lower levels of engagement on specific student experience items are also negative predictors of Zombie student satisfaction.
Zombie students report lower levels of participation in class discussion despite higher satisfaction with faculty feedback. Further investigation found that these students often find it difficult to raise their hand above their heads in response to the instructor’s questions.
Zombie students also report that their co-curricular experiences had less impact on their understanding of how they relate to others. Additional analysis of focus group transcripts suggests a broad lack of self-awareness.
Zombie students indicate that they have fewer serious conversations with students who differ by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or social values. Instead, Zombie students seem to congregate and rarely extend themselves out of their comfort zone.
Interestingly, our first- to second-year retention rate of Zombie students is 100 percent, despite high reports of tardiness and absences. Yet our six year graduation rate is 0 percent. While some have expressed concern over these conflicting data points, the Commencement Committee has suggested that the graduation ceremony is long enough already without having Zombie students shuffling aimlessly across the stage.
Finally, Zombie students report an increased level of one-on-one student/faculty interaction outside of class. However, we found no correlation between the substantial drop in the number of evening faculty from last year (108) to this year (52) and the number of Zombie students enrolled in night courses. Strangely, the Zombie students in these courses did indicate an unusually high level of satisfaction with the institution’s meal plan.
Mark Salisbury is director of institutional research and assessment at Augustana College, in Illinois. He blogs at Delicious Ambiguity, where a version of this essayfirst appeared.
On his education bus tour, President Obama is urging, among other suggestions, a new rating system to ensure that more families are able to afford higher education. I think we can all (well, almost all of us) agree that the rising costs of a bachelor’s degree need to be constrained, and we must find ways that facilitate middle- and lower-income students entering and graduating from college. The value proposition matters, and “debt without diploma” is unacceptable.
What is vastly harder to agree upon is how to address the problem, rather than just wringing our hands over it -- which we have been doing for far too long.
Let’s start with the president’s idea of rating colleges based on graduation rates and prospective earnings, among other variables. To be sure, given the president’s reference to U.S. News rankings in his speech today at the University of Buffalo, one wonders whether “ratings” are similar to or different from rankings – apart from using different variables.
More on the Obama Plan
Performance Funding Goes Federal: Obama gets aggressive in proposing college rating system. Making it happen won't be easy, but higher ed leaders said they'll play ball.
Disappointed, Not Surprised: Professors overwhelmingly voted for Obama twice. But five years into his presidency, few faculty leaders are surprised that they disagree strongly with his plan for higher ed reform.
Enjoying White House Attention: For colleges and other organizations promoting alternative paths to degrees, the president's speech was validation they have wanted.
On the surface, these two data points may seem easy to calculate. And advising families on how to compare and contrast college offers seems wise. But devising a quality rating system will require deep insight into how the world of higher education actually works – on the ground, in the trenches. As the president noted, Secretary Duncan needs to garner suggestions from a wide range of educational constituencies.
First, we know that more-elite institutions that serve Pell-eligible students have higher graduation rates than open-access institutions that enroll Pell eligible students. What accounts for this disparity is subject to debate, but arguably, part of the answer is that the richer institutions “cream skim” and only take the “best” among the low-income students.
For example, students who are selected to be Posse Scholars graduate from college (largely highly selective institutions) at a rate of 90 percent -- which is stunningly good. But, it is worth remembering that the 640 Posse Scholars enrolling each year are selected from approximately 15,000 applicants.
This means that elite institutions, absent some adjustment, would rank higher than non-elite institutions on graduation rates without any explanation as to why that is occurring. And the lower graduation rate of less-elite institutions may be at least partially explained by the lack of preparedness of their students. For some students and their colleges, a graduation rate of 40 percent is success, not failure.
Second, if we only calculate graduation rates of true first-year, full-time cohorts, we will be missing the mark in terms of who is actually enrolling in college today. Students with previous credits, transfer students, adults returning, part-time students and veterans would not be counted in the calculation, although at least some of these data points will be included as IPED’s data are improved over time.
Third, earnings are certainly occupation-based. Graduates who become teachers and nurses and police officers earn less than students who are employed by investment banks or hedge funds. Clearly, success in higher education cannot be measured based on earnings alone.
Yes, college graduates should not be underemployed or employed in fields that do not take advantage of their education. But how we calculate “sufficient” earnings is critically important, and more earnings are not necessarily better for the public good.
Finally, there is a built-in assumption that students and their parents will pay attention to and use the ratings effectively. Experience suggests otherwise. Despite transparency in the realm of consumer protection, consumers still make irrational and unwise choices, as behavioral economists have noted.
Indeed, as scholars point out, consumption decision-making is often based on non-economic determiners. And we already have early evidence that the current scorecard has not worked as expected – despite best efforts to share its availability. Moreover, the income-based repayment program – also publicized – has not had the expected uptake among students who could benefit from it, as the president himself noted. We need to make disclosure “smart.” We also need to focus on how to engage families in conversations about money. And educational institutions need to see that their obligations to advise students about loan repayment extends beyond graduation, particularly since initial payments often commence six months post-degree.
So if we proceed with graduation rates and earnings as indicators, we need to be cautious in terms of how we calculate both and be aware that even the best ratings may not help the very audiences we seek to persuade.
Indeed, possible key users of the ranking system are high school guidance counselors. But, as a recent report from the Public Agenda notes, this group of professionals is struggling to counsel students for college effectively. Thus, their caseload and training may make their uptake of any new ratings problematic, absent major changes in their education and training.
As an additive or alternative to the president’s suggestions, I think we would be wise to make change where the “default” position benefits students and their families. So, as one example, what about enacting legislation, through an amendment to the Bankruptcy Code, that enables students and parents to discharge burdensome private and public loans through bankruptcy?
A recent study by the Center for American Progress suggested the dischargeability of select public and private loans (with a robust definition of what constitutes nondischargeable qualified student loans.) The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Education issued a report in 2012 suggesting reconsideration of the nondischargeability of private student loans.
To anticipate the suggestion that easing bankruptcy’s discharge will create a moral hazard, my experience over 30 years of working with debtors and consumer finance suggests that this common concern is not supported by the evidence.
The availability of bankruptcy and the opportunity for dischargeability of specified debt has not led to a wave of abusive bankruptcy filings. As I always have said, most people do not wake up in the morning and say, “Yippee. I get to file bankruptcy today, having failed at America’s rags-to-riches dream.”
Surely the president has latched onto an issue that matters – a college education for the betterment of individuals and their families and society at large. This is because, at the end of the day, we need an educated citizenry to preserve our democracy. The real issue is how we make that accurate idea a reality. As with most difficult issues, the devil remains in the details.
Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College. She served as a senior policy adviser to the U.S. Department of Education during 2012 and is now a consultant to the department. The views presented here are her own and do not represent the position of the government, including the Department of Education.