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Essay urges liberal arts colleges to create a measure of civic engagement

A New Measure of Value
February 21, 2013

After this winter’s National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities meeting, the challenge voiced by a panel of Congressional staff members still rings in my ears. They asked: What is the return on investment for the $150 billion in federal grants, loans, and tax credits to higher education?

They suggested that this investment must have a pay-off measurable in the number of degrees completed, jobs attained, and salaries earned. It’s not only members of Congress and President Obama who want to know the value of a degree. The public – as reported in media coverage – also questions the cost of a college education, the debt incurred, the prospects for a job to pay off that debt, and whether recent graduates are employed, underemployed, or moving back home.

More urgently these days, colleges need to answer the question: Is it worth the cost? Just after President Obama’s State of the Union address, the White House released a “scorecard” on college performance measured by cost, graduation rates, borrowing, loan default rates and employment statistics. The public deserves to know these figures but the criteria do not go far enough in defining the value of a college degree.

The questions raised by politicians, policy makers, and parents remind me of another question, one not considered in the NAICU briefings: Are colleges and universities fulfilling their civic mission? What if we redefined “worth”? What if we could measure the return that educated citizens give to each other and the nation?

We need to redefine what the “return” means. We claim that we produce the inquiring, analytical, vocal, and engaged citizens required for a vital democratic system, but do we present the civic value of our missions forcefully enough to enter into and even change the public discourse?

I propose that colleges create a new Civic Scale, which does two things: 1) analyzes our courses, independent studies, and community activities to determine to what extent we teach democratic behaviors; 2) and surveys our alumni at various stages of their lives to determine if they are demonstrating key civic attributes.

What might we measure while students are undergraduates? There would be measures of history, political science and cultural studies courses that give students perspectives on our own democracy and other systems; humanities and arts courses that develop awareness of others’ lives and cultures; engaged learning and internships that develop skills in community organizing and instill knowledge about the competing forces in a democracy; and campus participation, where students practice voicing reasoned opinions and helping each other.

We should survey our alumni at least every five years to ask questions like:

  • Do you vote; how often?
  • Do you volunteer with a community organization?
  • Have you run for office?
  • Have you written to someone in elected office or published a letter to the editor?
  • Do you give to your favorite causes?
  • Do you attend civic meetings or organize to make change?
  • Do you participate in your children’s schools?
  • Do you attend cultural or other events that strengthen your community’s life?
  • Do you work for a nonprofit or an organization focused on education, the arts or social justice?
  • After college, did you join the Peace Corps or Teach for America?

We may find out that the more civically engaged students are also those who are the informed activists of today. Their behavior may even correlate with both economic success and the more elusive “pursuit of happiness.”

I’m an example of this interconnection, a product of a “liberating arts” education: a B.A. in philosophy from Bennington College, my M.F.A. in creative writing from Warren Wilson College, and a daily participant in the life of Marlboro College. My first job out of college was with the fledgling state arts agency, followed by 21 years in Washington as Senator Patrick J. Leahy’s chief of staff, deputy assistant to President Clinton and then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and founding director of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. The thinking, writing, and creative skills I learned prepared me for decades of service in the public arena.

Some colleges and their associations, such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities, are already working to define civic engagement and its relationship to student success and the demonstration of leadership skills. Dickinson College surveyed alumni and found, for example, that nearly 90 percent participated in volunteer work and 95 percent made a financial contribution to a nonprofit organization. At Marlboro College, students, faculty and staff convene monthly in a Town Meeting to discuss and decide the standards by which we conduct our community life together at this small liberal arts college. Students learn to present their arguments cogently and persuasively; they also learn to challenge a point with which they disagree with evidence and reasoning. These are valuable skills for practicing democracy.

My challenge, especially to leaders of liberal arts colleges, is twofold: to devise the attributes that belong in a Civic Scale and to join Marlboro College in creating one to highlight this crucial aspect of our mission.

Many leaders of liberal arts colleges and some other institutions are disappointed by the new College Scorecard from the Obama administration, observing that its measures leave out much of the true value of a higher education. But it’s not enough for us to say we think our model of education produces value. We need to start to analyze and measure outcomes beyond income if we are to challenge the idea that institutions should be judged primarily by how much their graduates earn one year after graduation.

Our democracy is threatened today by lack of participation by all segments of our society, including our optimistic and energetic young people. Corporate and secret money looms over our elections. The narrowing of media outlets means that it’s harder to find the tough investigative journalism and information that shine light on government policies and elected officials’ behaviors.

At a time when we must reanimate our democracy, let’s cooperate on a Civic Scale that shows the profound value of educating our future citizens. We want our students to thrive in their lives; that means finding jobs and supporting families. It must also, however, include finding meaning in life in service to others and to the country.

We must redefine “return on investment” to include civic behaviors that support our diverse and participatory democracy. As Thomas Jefferson said, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people."

 

Bio

Ellen McCulloch-Lovell is president of Marlboro College, in Vermont.

 

 

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