Across news articles and media stories, higher education is being pushed to justify quality, report on outcomes, and communicate value. There is a demand for results on students, taxpayers, and the public’s return on investment. Regulations require institutions to publish students’ retention, graduation, and placement rates. Institutions are scrambling to track data that demonstrates their degrees are relevant and that graduates are working in their degree field of study. By all accounts, this initially makes good business sense. To stay in business, we must continually communicate our value. However, in an effort to consistently communicate value, is the pendulum swinging so far the other direction that it risks limiting how student success is defined?
Businesses invest time and resources into researching their target consumer population, reviewing product quality, and monitoring satisfaction. Businesses thrive on making a profit. If their products or services are not useful, they become irrelevant. Everyday there are businesses of all sizes that close due to their inability to retain marketability. In a consumer-driven world, people spend their money on products and services that either makes their lives easier or makes them feel good. Consumers seek a tangible benefit.
For higher education, the perspective is really no different; however, the model used to determine good vs bad is flawed. First, education is not a profit-producing business model. It is a service business model. Institutions forget that their business is not producing degrees, it is providing a quality education for students. If we really want to focus on education’s purpose, it is to provide the knowledge necessary for people to enhance the lives of others as well as themselves. As a service model, the benefits and satisfaction are driven by students. While institutions can research their ideal target population and establish internal benchmarks for achievement, the development of outcomes is less concrete because students are human and their goals are unique. They experience setbacks, challenges, and delays in the achievement of their goals. They follow a winding path around roadblocks, avoiding cliffs, following detours, and navigating steep turns.
Second, education is a necessity. As a necessity, education is monitored through excessive regulation and oversight that can cause a propensity to engage in fraudulent practices. Students invest considerable time and money that makes it difficult for them to leave, even when they realize their educational goals are unlikely to be met. By contrast, when consumers no longer believe that the monetary investment equals the perceived benefit, the business ceases to offer value. Eventually, if the business is unable to change its trajectory, it closes. Sometimes the ease at which students can access financial assistance can blind them in evaluating whether they are receiving a quality education. Therefore, institutions have a responsibility to put students’ goals ahead of operational practices.
Third, tradition trumps change. As a long-revered institution in America, higher education is grounded in dated practices, some good and some not-so-good. Many of higher education’s challenges rest in the unwillingness to re-evaluate ways of thinking in order to strengthen learning to meet the needs of each student. The perpetuated misconception is that students all learn the same way. Students do not learn the same way and, by extension, educational options cannot be delivered the same way and learning outcomes cannot be measured or assessed the same way.
In response to these challenges, the higher education rhetoric has changed to emphasize accessibility, affordability, and quality. The higher education holy trinity. To answer the call for accessibility, there are online programs, unbundled educational options, and vocationally-oriented boot camps. To respond to affordability, there are MOOCs, free community college programs, and streamlining access to federal funds. To assure quality, there are accrediting organizations, federal regulators, and college rankings. When you bring these three together, they are reported as outcomes to which institutions are then held accountable. Institutions identify the benefits of each program during its development. The problem with this approach is that it narrowly defines educational benefits and student success, but more importantly it forgets that students are a diverse group of people with dreams. They are not robots to be churned through a system so that data can be collected and outcomes reported. Then at the end of the day, we look ourselves in the mirror, pat ourselves on the back, and feel accomplished for improving the metrics.
Higher education focuses its success on the numbers. Numbers are ineffective at measuring the extent to which education impacts peoples’ lives. As a non-traditional student, my path to achieving my educational goals and dreams could not have possibly been measured or adequately represented by data collected, benchmarks assessed, or placement indicators. Having earned an associate’s degree in general studies, undergraduate and master’s degrees in humanities, and a law degree, I would have missed every internal benchmark set by an institution. I took much longer then the estimated two years to complete my associate’s degree. I am not a professor of humanities. I do not practice law. By all accounts, I took a non-traditional, unbundled approach to education and by current reporting definitions am a failure. And, I’m not the only one.
When we only look to numbers to define value, we miss how success should truly be measured. Higher education has a unique opportunity. It takes only one institution to start understanding that students are people. People who need support, encouragement, and just one chance to enter an educational institution without the fear of failure. A chance to realize a goal initially perceived as being beyond their reach. A chance to earn a degree and use the skills gained to pursue their passion. A chance to achieve their full potential. A chance to change the world.
“We [should] measure success by the way we touch the lives of people.” ~ Bob Chapman