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Essay criticizes state of assessment movement in higher education

In higher education circles, there is something of a feeding frenzy surrounding the issue of assessment. The federal government, due to release a proposed rating system later this fall, wants assessments to create ways to allow one to compare colleges and universities that provide “value”; accrediting organizations want assessments of student learning outcomes; state agencies want assessments to prove that tax dollars are being spent efficiently; institutions want internal assessments that they can use to demonstrate success to their own constituencies.

By far the main goal of this whirlwind of assessment is trying to determine whether an institution effectively delivers knowledge to its students, as though teaching and learning were like a commodity exchange. This view of education very much downplays the role of students in their own education, placing far too much responsibility on teachers and institutions, and overburdening everyone with a never-ending proliferation of paperwork and bureaucracy.

True learning requires a great deal of effort on the part of the learner. Much of this effort must come in the form of self-inquiry, that is, ongoing examination and reexamination of one’s beliefs and habits to determine which ones need to be revised or discarded. This sort of self-examination cannot be done by others, nor can the results of it be delivered by a teacher. It is work that a student must do for himself or herself.

Because of this, most of the work required in attaining what matters most in education is the responsibility of the student. A teacher can make suggestions, point out deficiencies, recommend methods, and model the behavior of someone who has mastered self-transformation. But no teacher can do the work of self-transformation for a student.

Current assessment models habitually and almost obsessively understate the responsibility of the student for his or her own learning, and, what is more consequential, overstate the responsibility of the teacher. Teachers are directed to provide clear written statements of observable learning outcomes; to design courses in which students have the opportunity to achieve those outcomes; to assess whether students achieve those outcomes; and to use the assessments of students to improve the courses so that attainment of the prescribed outcomes is enhanced.  The standards do not entirely remove the student as an agent — the course provides the opportunity, while the student must achieve the outcomes. But the assessment procedures prescribe in advance the outcome for the student; the student can achieve nothing of significance, as far as assessment goes, except what the professor preordains.

This is a mechanical and illiberal exercise. If the student fails to attain the end, is it because the professor has not provided a sufficient opportunity? Or because, despite the opportunity being perfectly designed, the student, in his freedom, hasn’t acted? Or maybe the student attains the designed outcome due to her own ingenuity even when the opportunity is ill-designed. Or, heaven forbid, the student has after reflection rejected the outcome desired by the teacher in favor of another. The assessment procedure accurately measures the effectiveness of the curriculum precisely to the extent that the student’s personal freedom is discounted. To the extent that student’s freedom is acknowledged, the assessment procedure has to fail.

True learning belongs much more to the student than to the teacher. Even if the teacher spoon-feeds facts to the students, devises the best possible tests to determine whether students are retaining the facts, tries to fire them up with entertaining excitement, and exhibits perfectly in front of them the behavior of a self-actuated learner, the students will learn little or nothing important about the subject or about themselves if they do not undertake the difficult discipline of taking charge of their own growth. This being the case, obsessing about the responsibility of the teacher without paying at least as much attention to the responsibility of the student is hardly going to produce helpful assessments.

True learning is not about having the right answer, so measuring whether students have the right answers is at best incidental to the essential aims of education. True learning is about mastering the art of asking questions and seeking answers, and applying that mastery to your own life. Ultimately, it is about developing the power of self-transformation, the single most valuable ability one can have for meeting the demands of an ever-changing world. Meaningful assessment measures attainment in these areas, rather than in the areas most congenial to the economic metaphor.

How best to judge whether students have attained the sort of freedom that can be acquired by study? Demand that they undertake and successfully complete intellectual investigations on their own. The independence engendered by such projects empowers students to meet the challenges of life and work. It helps them shape lives worth living, arrived at through thoughtful exploration of the question: What kind of life do I want to make for myself?

What implications does this focus have for assessors? They should move away from easy assessments that miss the point to more difficult assessments that try to measure progress in self-transformation. The Gallup-Purdue Index Report "Great Jobs, Great Lives" found six crucial factors linking the college experience to success at work and overall well-being in the long term:

1. At least one teacher who made learning exciting.
2. Personal concern of teachers for students.
3. Finding a mentor
4. Working on a long-term project for at least one semester.
5. Opportunities to put classroom learning into practice through internships or jobs.
6. Rich extracurricular activities.

Assessors should thus turn all their ingenuity toward measuring the quality of the students’ learning environment, toward measuring students’ engagement with their teachers and their studies, and toward measuring activities in which students practice the freedom they have been working to develop in college. The results should be used to push back against easy assessments based on the categories of economics.

Higher education, on the other hand, would do well to repurpose most of the resources currently devoted to assessment. Use them instead to do away with large lecture classes — the very embodiment of education-as-commodity — so that students can have serious discussions with teachers, and teachers can practice the kind of continuous assessment that really matters.


Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College, in Annapolis.

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Essay argues that colleges can measure the career success of graduates

With rising tuition, families are increasingly concerned about what students can expect after graduation in terms of debt, employment, and earnings. They want to know: What is the value of a college degree? Is it worth the cost? Are graduates getting good-paying jobs?

At the same time, state and federal policymakers are sounding the call to institutions for increased accountability and transparency. Are students graduating? Are they accruing unmanageable debt? Are graduates prepared to enter the workforce?

Colleges and universities struggle to answer some of these questions. Responses rely primarily on anecdotal evidence or under-researched and un-researched assumptions because there are little data available. Student data are the sole dominion of colleges and universities. Workforce data is confined to various state and federal agencies. With no systematic or easy way to pull the various data sources together, colleges universities have limited ability to provide the kind of analysis of return on investment that will satisfy the debate.

But access to unit-record data — connecting the student records to the workforce records — would allow institutions to discover those answers. What’s more, it would give colleges and universities the opportunity to conduct powerful research and analysis on post-graduation outcomes that could shape policies and program development.

For example, education provides a foundation of skills and abilities that students bring into the workforce upon graduation. But how long does this foundation continue to have a significant impact on workforce outcomes after graduation? Research based on unit-record data can also show the strongest predictors of student earnings after graduation — educational experience, the local and national economy, supply and demand within the field, or some combination of each.

President Obama and others have proposed that colleges share such information, and many colleges have objected. They have suggested that the information can’t be obtained; that data would be flawed because graduates of some programs at a college might see different career results than others at the same institution; that such a system would jeopardize student privacy; that it would penalize colleges with programs whose graduates might not earn the most one year out, but five or more years out.

At the University of Texas System, we have found a solution – at least within our own state – and, for the first time, are able to provide valuable information to our students and their families. We are doing so without assuming that data one year out is better or worse than a longer time frame – only that students and families should be able to have lots of statistics to examine. We formed a partnership with the Texas Workforce Commission that gives us access to the quarterly earnings records of our students who have graduated since 2001-02 and are found working in Texas. While most of our alumni do work in Texas, a similar partnership with the Social Security Administration might make this approach possible for institutions whose alumni scatter more than ours do.

With that data, we created seekUT, an online, interactive tool — accessible via desktop, tablet, and mobile device — that provides data on salaries and debt of UT System alumni who earned undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees for 1, 5, and 10 years after graduation. The data are broken down by specific degrees and majors since we know that an education major and an engineering major from the same institution – both valuable to society – are unlikely to earn the same amount. Also, seekUT introduces the reality of student loan debt to prospective and graduate students. In addition to average total student loan debt, it shows estimated monthly loan payment alongside monthly income, as well as the debt-to-income ratio. And because this is shown over time, students get a longer view of how that debt load might play out over the course of their career as their earnings increase over time.

When we present data in this way, we provide students information to make important decisions about how much debt they can realistically afford to acquire based on what their potential earnings might be, not just a year after graduation, but 5 and 10 years down the road. Students and families can use seekUT to help inform decisions about their education and to plan for their financial future.

Admittedly, it is an incomplete picture. Many of our graduates, especially those with advanced degrees, leave the state. If they enroll elsewhere to continue their education, we can discover that through the National Student Clearinghouse StudentTracker. But for those who are not enrolled, there is no information. In lieu of a federal database, we are exploring other options and partnerships to help fill in these holes, but, for now, there are gaps.

With unit record data we can inform current and prospective students about past performance for graduates in their same major; this is a highly valuable product of this level of data. Access to this information in a user-friendly format can directly benefit students by offering real insights — not just alumni stories or survey-based information — into outcomes. The intent is not to change anyone’s major or sway them from their passion, but, instead, to help students make the decisions now that will allow them to pursue that passion after graduation.

There are a multitude of areas we need to explore, both to answer questions about how our universities are performing and to provide much-needed information to current and prospective students. The only way to definitively provide this important information is through unit-record data.

We recognize that there are legitimate concerns, especially given the nearly constant headlines regarding data breaches, about protecting student privacy and data. And the more expansive the data pool, the larger and more appealing the target. A federal student database may be an attractive target to hackers. But these risks can be mitigated — and are, in fact, on a daily basis by university institutional research offices, as well as state and federal agencies. We safeguard the IDs, locking down access to the original file, and not using any identified data for analysis. And when we display information, we do not include any data for cell sizes less than five. This has been true for the student data that we have always held. Given these safeguards, I believe that the need for the data and the benefits of having access to it far outweigh the risks.

seekUT is an example of just some of what higher education institutions can do with access to their workforce data. But for all its importance, seekUT is a tool to provide users access to the information, to inform individual decisions. It is from the deeper research and analysis of these data, however, that we may see major changes and shifts in the policies that impact all students. That is the true power of these data.

For example, while we are gleaning a great deal of helpful information studying our alumni, this same data gives us insights into our current students who are working while enrolled. UT System is currently examining the impact of income, type of work, and place of work (on or off campus) on student persistence and graduation. The results of this study could have an impact on work-study policies across our institutions.

Higher education institutions can leverage data from outside sources to better-understand student outcomes. However, without a federal unit record database, individual institutions will continue to be forced to forge their own partnerships, yielding piecemeal efforts and incomplete stories. We cannot wait; we must forge ahead. Institutions of higher education have a responsibility to students and parents and to the public.


Stephanie Bond Huie is vice chancellor of the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the University of Texas System.

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