Many university leaders have praised how well their institutions managed through the abrupt transition from in-person to online education during the pandemic. As one higher ed industry expert put it to me last week: “They’ve strained their necks patting themselves on the back so much.” But fresh student ratings on the value of their education tell an entirely different story. They say past year was closer to an unmitigated disaster than any kind of success.
Among the latest findings from Inside Higher Ed’s Student Voice survey (in partnership with College Pulse and supported by Kaplan) are college student ratings on the value of their education this year. On a five-point scale from “excellent” to “poor,” a mere 7 percent of current students rated the value of their education this year as “excellent,” while nearly three times as many (19 percent) were on the opposite end of the scale rating it “poor.” Nearly half all students (47 percent) rated their educational value as “fair” or “poor.” No way to sugarcoat it -- this is an abysmal rating.
To further illustrate how bad this rating is, following is an apples-to-apples comparison to what is arguably the most prevalent customer rating metric in history: the five-star rating used by ride-sharing company Uber and many other companies and organizations. (Across 2019 and 2020 alone, there were 12 billion Uber rides completed -- all of which gathered user ratings.) Asking the same exact question above but using the five-star scale, students gave their colleges and universities an average 3.4 rating this past year (which includes just 11 percent who provided a five-star rating).
To put this in perspective, Uber famously fires drivers who average below a 4.6 rating. (Interestingly, only about 2 to 3 percent of drivers are in that range.) If universities were rated like Uber drivers, they would have been fired many times over this year.
Granted, an Uber ride is very different than a college education. But the rating metric is nonetheless a tried-and-true indicator that is well understood by a vast majority of students and consumers across many kinds of products, services and experiences. And higher education would be wise to take its dismal rating with a dose of humility and urgency.
The pandemic accelerated and compounded many pre-existing conditions facing higher education, from rising tuition costs to doubts about graduate work readiness and substantial declines in the confidence of higher education. Although universities made a fast and impressive logistical pivot to online during the pandemic, there is little evidence to suggest it was done well from a quality-of-education perspective. And this will further exacerbate the current trend of declining confidence and enrollments in higher education.
This is not to suggest that all colleges and universities did a poor job this year delivering on the value of their education. But the averages tell us there is quite a bit of fresh student dissatisfaction on top of the already growing doubts and questions about the value of higher education.
Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.
In addition, the pandemic has created new student expectations that universities are going to be very hard-pressed to deliver upon, according to another recent Student Voice survey. Although most students are eager to return to in-person learning, the majority still want the option to take classes online, and eight in 10 would like all their lectures to be recorded. As higher ed leaders plan for a full return to campus this fall, few are thinking about how they will deliver on both an in-person and an online experience for students and faculty going forward. With strong demand for continued work-from-home options among working adults and faculty, this will be even more complicated.
Unlike the Uber driver who gets fired at 4.6, higher ed leaders have an opportunity to take their 3.4 rating and treat it as the baseline for continuous improvement going forward.
College and university officials should take quality ratings of all kinds seriously and utilize them as critical barometers on the education they offer. One clear learning from the pandemic is that some schools/colleges, and some teachers/faculty members, adapted to online far better than others. There was tremendous variability in the quality of what was offered with rich lessons to guide improvement. Unlike the Uber driver who gets fired at 4.6, higher ed leaders have an opportunity to take their 3.4 and treat it as the baseline for continuous improvement going forward.
Coming out of the pandemic, student expectations are going to be sky-high. With students fresh off a not-so-satisfying year with new experiences and modalities from which to evaluate their education, it is plausible their ratings could drop further as opposed to improve. This is no time to take the foot off the pedal of improving pedagogy and the overall quality of the educational experience for students. In fact, this coming academic year may be the most important year in higher ed history to deliver on value.