“As a nation, we have to make college more accessible and affordable and ensure that all students graduate with a quality education of real value.”
--Secretary Arne Duncan, December 19, 2014
With the release of the Obama administration’s much-anticipated framework for rating the nation’s colleges and universities, commentators already are weighing in on the yawning gulf between the stated intention of ensuring “a quality education of real value” and the severe limitations of the metrics being considered. While the proposed college ratings system can and should expose some truly bad institutions that don’t deserve to receive federal support, the ratings framework by design presents a severely limited picture of how individual colleges and universities serve students and the nation. Regardless of whether one judges the proposed ratings data to be clarifying or misleading, the fact remains that the most important outcome of higher education — the impact a college or university has on student learning outcomes — is completely missing from the federal ratings framework.
American higher education urgently needs a college learning assessment system, but not one that equates student learning with disciplinary knowledge alone. Rather, it needs a way to account for the higher-order capacities and skills that are the hallmarks of a liberal education. The ordinary citizen will very reasonably assume that the college ratings system the federal government is now poised to promote does provide the needed evidence on college learning and quality. (Secretary Duncan himself seems to assume this, as the quote above makes clear.)
But the ordinary citizen will be wrong in this assumption. The proposed college ratings system does not, in fact, provide any evidence at all about the quality of student learning. By design, the federal ratings system is focused carefully and exclusively on data related to who enrolls in college, institutional affordability, and employment at a living wage after graduation.
What then should we do about the quality of learning challenge? What America absolutely does not need the federal government to do — and what the administration has so far very prudently and thoughtfully refrained from doing — is to create a national, federally devised and controlled system that would specify what the learning goals of college should be and then assess whether students are achieving them. Nonetheless, the public does need to know how well colleges, universities, and community colleges are doing in providing the kinds of learning that contribute directly to students’ success beyond graduation.
Under established law, private college and university boards of trustees and public college and university state system governing arrangements rightly determine the missions of individual higher education institutions, and through longstanding shared governance arrangements faculty and institutional leaders set the goals for student learning on individual campuses with the needs and goals of students and of the nation very much in mind. Yet there is wide recognition — especially among America’s employers, but also within higher education itself — that far too few students graduate from college well-enough prepared for success in work, civic participation and democratic citizenship, and life in the 21st century.
American higher education must do much better in both assessing and improving learning.
And, on this front, there is genuinely good news to report. This year, far away from the ratings furor, educators themselves are taking the lead in developing the kind of learning assessments the public deserves from higher education. The VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) represents an important step forward — one that has at its core not only the assessment of student learning, but also the creation of a platform for providing institutions with direct feedback to support continuous quality improvement in teaching and learning. Developed in 2007 through a national collaboration of faculty, institutional, and state-system leaders along with content knowledge and student learning experts, the VALUE approach to assessment has since gained acceptance with remarkable speed.
This year, building on this foundation, AAC&U, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), nine state systems, and 85 public and private institutions are engaged in a major proof of concept study designed to demonstrate the different direction the VALUE approach represents both for assessing learning outcomes and for providing useful feedback to educators about strengths and needed improvements in student performance. The states working in concert with AAC&U and SHEEO are Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Utah. Private liberal arts institutions in additional states also are contributing to the study.
Under the VALUE approach, rubrics — common across participating institutions — are used rather than standardized tests, and scores are based on faculty judgments about actual student work. Specifically, graded student work products that show what a student knows and can do — an essay, a piece of creative writing, a lab report, an oral presentation — are evaluated and scored by faculty members (not those who originally assigned and graded the work product) against a rubric that describes multiple dimensions of what it means to do critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, integrative reasoning, or any of the other forms of higher-order learning for which the VALUE rubrics describe achievement at different levels. The exciting promise of this work is that higher education itself is advancing an approach to assessment that is meaningful and accessible to faculty, students, and higher education stakeholders alike.
The VALUE rubrics were initially created by faculty members, and they reflect educators’ shared judgments about both the substance and the quality of student learning outcomes. Teams of faculty and academic professionals from more than 100 campuses across the country contributed to the development of these VALUE assessment rubrics for each of 16 liberal learning outcomes: inquiry and analysis, critical thinking, writing, integrative learning, oral communication, information literacy, problem solving, teamwork, intercultural knowledge, civic engagement, creative thinking, quantitative literacy, lifelong learning, ethical reasoning, global learning, and reading. These outcomes are important to the education of all college students, whether in two-year or four-year institutions, liberal arts or pre-professional programs, online or in-person courses, and regardless of institutional mission.
But the VALUE approach offers more than just a way to assess student learning. It is itself potentially a “high-impact practice” that will lead to greater student persistence and completion and to a reduction in the achievement gap between white students and disadvantaged students of color. The VALUE rubrics show students what excellence with regard to a particular learning goal looks like, and they let students see where they are on the path toward excellent performance. When faculty talk with students about their work and how it was scored, they are providing students with precisely the kind of “frequent, timely and constructive feedback,” “interactions with faculty ... about substantive matters,” and “structured opportunities to reflect on and integrate learning” that is characteristic of high-impact practices as George Kuh has defined them in his influential reports. In addition, AAC&U has learned already from campuses piloting the use of VALUE rubrics that, after initial experiences with the rubrics, faculty come together to develop assignments that directly address higher-order liberal learning skills — especially evidence-based reasoning — rather than lower-order skills such as description, summary, and paraphrase. None of this happens when a student is sent his or her score on a standardized test. This feature of VALUE, above and beyond its great utility as an assessment system, is responsible for its already very wide and growing support in colleges, universities, and state systems nationally.
What the federal government could and should do, even as it develops and tests its new ratings system, is to remind the nation, over and over, that student acquisition of the knowledge and skills college graduates need is the primary and most critical public purpose for which colleges and universities are chartered. Hence, the federal government should say that assessing what college students know and can do must be a very high institutional — and, for public institutions, institutional and state-system — priority.
While the federal government should not seek to take responsibility for this assessment, it can and should remind those properly responsible that the quality and assessment of student learning — not just access, completion, and non-learning outcomes — must become a top priority.
At the very least, the US Department of Education should publicly be calling attention to and rooting for the success of state- and institution-driven efforts like VALUE that have national potential. But it also could, through existing federal grant programs such as the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) or through Department of Education contracts, create incentives for institutions and state systems to adopt new assessment approaches by offsetting temporary institutional “ramping-up” costs or providing financial support for the necessary infrastructure to allow initiatives like VALUE to become functional nationwide.
This is how public-private partnerships should work: investing in promising ideas and facilitating their testing as they develop. Both at the federal and state levels, public policy can be an enabler for the radically better approach to assessment that VALUE represents.
So even as we debate what’s right or wrong with the ratings, let’s remember that advancing accountability in higher education ultimately needs to include what students are learning.
Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Daniel F. Sullivan is president emeritus of St. Lawrence University and chair of the AAC&U LEAP Presidents’ Trust.
It should not be controversial to believe that growing up involves becoming stronger, becoming better able to withstand whatever slings and arrows life throws at us and to pursue our goals even against difficult challenges. Surely the college years can and should play an important role in that growing-up process.
And yet, too often colleges treat their students like hatchlings not yet ready to leave the nest, as opposed to preparing and encouraging them to fly.
There are a variety of policies and practices that give students what most of them seem to want, but not necessarily what they most need. Speech codes and trigger warnings are two over-protecting initiatives that have received considerable attention in the higher education press and beyond.
So much has been written about the problems with speech codes that there is no need to belabor the subject at this point. Aside from the legal problems they can present with regard to free speech issues, especially in public higher education, they presume that students cannot withstand, much less respond with vigor to, speech they find objectionable. They also serve as an example of how formal codes and policies are no substitute for shared norms and values concerning how people should behave with one another.
The trigger warning movement, which has offered another field day for those on the lookout for opportunities to ridicule colleges and universities, advocates alerting students in advance to anything potentially upsetting in materials required for a course. Above and beyond being forewarned, some students would presumably be allowed to avoid an encounter with such materials altogether. Aside from this being an insult to the intelligence and good sense of students and faculty members alike, it also threatens to spoil the thrill of discovery. After all, would all first-time readers of Anna Karenina really want to be told ahead of time that [SPOILER ALERT!!] Anna commits suicide by throwing herself under a train at the end of the novel.
And then there is the rash of speaker cancellations due to student unwillingness to be exposed to “objectionable” views from a guest to the campus. Part of this particular problem might be addressed by recognizing that an essentially ritual occasion like a graduation ceremony may not be the best venue for a controversial, as opposed to celebratory, message. That issue taken care of, it should be easier to push back on other occasions against students who are being overly selective in their defense of free speech.
Student reactions to displays of racial insensitivity and prejudice can be considered in this context. The persistence of racism in our society and on our campuses is most certainly disturbing and unacceptable. At the same time, while a couple of students hanging a Confederate flag in their dormitory window or some students sending anonymous offensive tweets should not go without some critical response, incidents like these do not seem sufficient to put an entire campus into a state of turmoil. Surely, that is attributing too much power to the offenders and displaying too much vulnerability on the part of those they would offend.
It is important to consider which institutional customs may be at odds with the task at hand. There is, for example, the practice that has become common of designating certain areas of campus as “safe spaces” for certain kinds of activities and identities. Such language goes above and beyond the informal establishing of preferred comfortable gathering spaces. The implication is that certain students, depending on their identities or preferred activities, are “unsafe” on other areas of campus. This magnifies the sense of personal danger out of all proportion and interferes with students’ appreciation of what it means to be in real peril. It is an obstacle to the development of authentic courage.
The exponential growth of professional student services staff – which, to be sure, has had its positive side – has played into a tendency toward what we might see as self-infantilization on the part of students, who are now in the habit of seeking formal institutional support and approval for the kinds of activities they used to be capable of managing themselves. The most unusual example of this in my own years as a college president occurred when a student came to me seeking institutional recognition for the group she represented, which, as it happened, was composed of students favoring safe, consensual S&M sex. I inquired as to why it was not sufficient that her group was not being interfered with by the administration. That was apparently not good enough for her: she wanted a blessing from those in authority. I declined to provide the blessing, preferring to encourage her to see that she could manage without it.
This support-seeking seems to be of a piece with the prolonged umbilical role that many students maintain with their parents into their college years, calling them several times a day on their cellphones. The parents, for their part, remain overly involved with their children – at least those parents whose life circumstances allow them to do so. And so we have socialization in reverse: rather than helping their offspring achieve adulthood, those who should be the grown-ups are living the lives of their children along with them. Parental over-involvement can make the institutional exercise of authority all the more challenging when it rises to (or descends into) litigiousness.
So -- whose responsibility is it to address this and other aspects of campus culture that stand in the way of students developing the kind of resilience and strength that they need in life? First and foremost, this job, like so many other tough and often thankless tasks, falls to college and university presidents. A job far easier to assign than to fulfill.
Those of us who have moved on to less complicated lives must at least have the good grace to feel their pain. The task, however, must be taken up if the undergraduate experience is to be what it should be. Where presidents lead, staff will follow – and so even will the faculty, if a persuasively argued connection is made to the essential purposes of the institution.
Here, then, are the questions that must frame a president’s response when one of those increasingly common eruptions breaks out on campus: How high does this measure on the Richter scale of crises? How can I respond in a way that plays to my students’ strengths as opposed to their weaknesses? How can this serve as an occasion to increase their wisdom and self-confidence? How will I help them to grow up?
To invoke the timelessly wise words of the Rolling Stones: If students can’t always get what they want, if we try sometimes, we might just find they get what they need.
Judith Shapiro is a former faculty member and provost at Bryn Mawr College and former president of Barnard College.
There is a large group of students — often overlooked — whose completion of college we need to better track and encourage: transfer students. We need to do a better job of collecting and following transfer students’ data and of instituting policies that help them to graduate, such as ensuring that their credits transfer. There are many reasons that these students deserve our full attention.
For several years there has been a national priority, set by President Obama, to increase the percentage of people in the United States who have college degrees, both by increasing the number of people who go to college and by increasing the percentage of college students who finish. The United States is now only 16th in the world in the percentage of young adults with college degrees, and the percentage of U.S. jobs needing college degrees is growing faster than the supply. We need to make sure that each college student completes. However, one of the largest subgroups of students — transfer students — is frequently being ignored.
That transfer students constitute a huge group is indisputable. As early as 1999, Clifford Adelman, then at the U.S. Department of Education, in his now-classic report "Answers in the Tool Box," was noting an “increasing tendency, overlooked in both policy and research, for students to attend two, three, or more colleges in the course of their undergraduate careers.” A 2012 study by the National Student Clearinghouse showed that approximately one-third of all students who began college at any level transferred at least once within five years.
The City University of New York (CUNY) provides a useful current example. At this urban university of approximately 240,000 undergraduates in 19 colleges, approximately 10,000 students transfer from one CUNY campus to another each fall alone. There are also many thousands who transfer in the spring, and many thousands who transfer out of and into CUNY. In fact, each year about two-thirds of all new students in CUNY bachelor’s degree programs enter as transfers. The result is that, at every one of CUNY’s 12 colleges that offers bachelor’s degrees, over half of the bachelor’s degree graduates are transfer students — the majority of graduates do not consist of students who started at those colleges as freshmen. So, when, on occasion, the CUNY faculty or administrators at these colleges talk about their college’s students as only those students who entered that college as freshmen, they are actually talking about a minority of their students. Many other colleges and universities around the country also enroll large percentages of transfer students.
In addition to the category of transfer students being very large, it deserves our focus for another reason. As shown in the National Student Clearinghouse Study, the largest proportion of transfer students consists of students moving from community colleges to bachelor’s-degree colleges. Community college students tend to be more racially and economically diverse than are students at bachelor’s degree colleges (the national percentages of students who are black, Hispanic, and from low-income families are 15, 14, and 26 for community colleges, and 11, 10, and 20 for bachelor’s-degree colleges, respectively). This pattern is true for CUNY as well, where black and Hispanic students are 10 percent and 18 percent of freshmen entering the most selective bachelor’s degree colleges, but 19 percent and 25 percent of the transfer students. And at CUNY, transfer students are also more likely than new freshmen to have been born outside the U.S., and to have a first language other than English. When you take into account that CUNY’s most selective colleges now admit far more transfer students than freshmen (e.g., 15,237 versus 7,260, respectively, in academic year 2013-2014), it is clear that CUNY’s transfer students are an important source of college degrees for students from underrepresented groups.
CUNY also provides a helpful example in understanding the multifaceted nature of student transfer. As is true nationally, the largest percentage of students transferring to CUNY’s five most selective college comes from associate degree programs at CUNY’s community and comprehensive colleges. By CUNY policy, students who need remediation must begin in an associate degree program at one of these colleges, which have expertise in providing remediation, which is needed by some 80 percent of CUNY new associate degree freshmen. Each year almost 10,000 CUNY students, having completed their remediation, transfer from a CUNY associate degree program to a bachelor’s degree program at a different CUNY college. In addition, many transfers to the five most selective CUNY colleges come from other, less selective, CUNY bachelor’s degree programs or from outside of CUNY. However, the huge majority (at least 84 percent) of new CUNY transfer students come from another CUNY college or are living in New York City or both. Thus, the most selective CUNY colleges serve as a destination for transfer students who entered college with relatively less preparation, but who subsequently showed themselves ready for rigorous advanced work.
This all means that, if we ignore transfer students, or, to put it another way, focus only on first-time freshmen who stay at a particular college, we are not only ignoring a huge proportion of college students, we are also ignoring a huge potential source of diversity among baccalaureate graduates, including many students who have recently proven themselves able to handle college and to receive a degree. If we ignore transfer students, we are continuing to disadvantage many students who have been disadvantaged all their lives.
Though it is true that many colleges — at CUNY and nationwide — have special programs for transfer students, examples of how these students have been ignored abound. A prime example is the national student database maintained by the U.S. Department of Education: IPEDS. This important data repository is the source of data for federal education policy purposes, as well as for researchers and policy makers all over the country. Each institution of higher education in the U.S. that provides federal financial aid is required to deposit specific data in IPEDS each year. However, one type of data that is not currently required for IPEDS is graduation information about transfer students, although IPEDS will start tracking some of this information next year.
Furthermore, when the U.S. Department of Education calculates graduation rates, these rates are currently limited to students who started and finished at a given college. The Department of Education is promising to release soon a new college rating system, but the new system cannot include anything about transfer student graduation rates until either IPEDS starts requiring sufficient data, or another data source, such as the National Student Clearinghouse, is used. It seems that we still need to heed Adelman’s 1999 advice: “When [a large percentage] of undergraduates attend more than one institution … institutional graduation rates are not very meaningful. It is not wise to blame a college with superficially low graduation rates for the behavior of students who swirl through the system.”
Similar to the U.S. Department of Education, other rating systems, such as that promulgated by U.S. News & World Report, also do not take into account transfer graduation rates. The graduation rate portion of the U.S. News ratings is based entirely on first-time full-time freshmen who go on to graduate from their original college of entry.
In addition to having programs specifically for transfer students, CUNY has perhaps been a bit ahead of the curve in terms of tracking and using transfer student data. Since 1999, CUNY has had an accountability system for its colleges, and among this system’s measures for each college are graduation rates of transfer students, in addition to graduation rates of students who started and finished at a single college. Further, in measuring graduation rates, CUNY looks at the rate at which its new college students end up graduating from any CUNY college, not just from the colleges that they first entered.
Another critical way to assist transfer students in graduating is to ensure that their credits transfer with them, and that the transferred credits count for what they were originally intended: general education, major, or elective credit. Several recent studieshave detailed challenges associated with credit transfer. To try to ameliorate such challenges, many states have mandated that some or all credits transfer among some or all higher education institutions in that state. This has not happened in New York. However, CUNY adopted its Pathways program in fall 2013. With Pathways, general education credits taken by students at any of CUNY’s 19 undergraduate colleges satisfy the same requirements at all 19 undergraduate colleges. Credits also transfer seamlessly for the first several courses in each of the 10 majors that have the most transfer students. All other undergraduate courses transfer as at least elective credit.
Even though CUNY is considered one university by New York State Education Law, required to have close articulation among its colleges, a principle upheld in two recent court cases, there has been much controversy at CUNY about Pathways. At CUNY it had sometimes been the tradition for faculty at a given college to decide the worth of all transfer student credits and to set the general education and major requirements for students at that college independently of any other CUNY college. As a result, many students were having significant difficulties transferring credits. This situation pitted the rights, or perceived rights, of faculty to decide student requirements directly against the needs of transfer students for support in completing their degrees.
The CUNY Pathways project can provide further understanding of why support of transfer students may be particularly important in ensuring higher education for disadvantaged students. There were two groups of students who particularly lobbied for the passing and effecting of Pathways: disabled students and LGBT students. Students in the first group pointed out that some of the financial aid that they receive as disabled students would not pay for a course that had to be repeated when a student transferred. So, in addition to dealing with any challenges associated with their disability, they had to find money to pay for the disallowed course. Students in the second group pointed out that they are particularly likely to transfer. The president of one LGBT organization told me that 95 percent of her organization’s members had transferred. She further explained that the LGBT status of some CUNY students, who often live with their parents and commute, can become a source of friction within the student’s family during college, resulting in the student having to move — and transfer.
Although some aspects of CUNY’s situation may be unique, there may be a general lesson to be learned from the CUNY example. Even though many students transfer for purely academic reasons (they develop a new academic interest not emphasized by their original college, they complete remedial work and show themselves qualified for college work at a higher level, they finish their associate degree and now want to move to a college that gives bachelor’s degrees, etc.), they may also transfer due to a variety of personal challenges, challenges that we do not ordinarily measure.
If we do not attend to the data concerning transfer student success (i.e., graduation), we cannot hold colleges and other relevant entities to task for that success. And that means that colleges and other relevant entities do not have any incentives to facilitate that success. Thus not tracking transfer student data has profound implications, and likely disadvantages the close to one-third of U.S. college students who transfer within five years of beginning college. Our focus should be on the overall goal — graduation — not on freshmen who take just one of the many possible paths to get there.
Each student has different needs. Even if our only goal is to increase graduation rates, it is our obligation to see that those individual needs are met. Without attending to transfer students’ particular circumstances as reflected in their data, without incentivizing colleges to help these students graduate and facilitating their credit transfer, increasing the United States’ percentage of young adults with college degrees will be far more difficult.
Alexandra W. Logue is research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at the City University of New York Graduate Center.