How About Post-College Exams?


In a recent Wall Street Journal article co-authored by Purdue University president Mitch Daniels, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton observed that “Gallup’s hundreds of business clients report that many, if not most, college diplomas don’t tell them much about graduates’ readiness for productive work.”  The information gap particularly hurts students attending non-selective admission colleges of so-so reputation: how do they demonstrate to potential employers that they are competent and potentially highly productive? Indeed, how do those colleges generally tell the world that they are more successful in graduating productive individuals than their reputation as measured by magazine rankings suggests?

I am particularly interested in these questions because I DO college rankings (for Forbes) and know that given large information gaps that we now have, current rankings are very weak in evaluating the post-graduate success of students by institutions. Hence I have been begging folks like the Education Testing Service and ACT to develop new test or survey instruments to permit better assessment of the performance of universities in preparing students for the world of work, as well as instruments that would help individuals demonstrate their post-graduate potential.

New Opportunities for Post-College Assessment

Necessity is the mother of invention. Two new instruments are being developed to meet the needs of students, universities, and potential employers to fill the information gap. The CLA + test is a modified version of the existing Critical Learning Assessment test, a fine instrument that formed the basis of the magisterial research effort of Richard Arum and Josip Roksa published as Academically Adrift,  showing that American college seniors on average showed only modest gains over freshman in terms of their critical thinking and writing skills.

Right now a student graduating from, say, California State University at Fresno, Kansas State University, or the State University of New York at Brockport with a 3.3 average has a tough time getting considered for a good job. These schools, while by no means considered academic disasters or diploma mills, accept kids that were mostly above average but not exceptionally good high school students. A 3.3 average once denoted “a well above average student” but does not anymore in this era of grade inflation. In short, absent more information, this hypothetical student would be considered “a so-so student from a so-so university,” perhaps not worth employers investing human resource department dollars to carefully assess and interview.

Enter the CLA + and the new Gallup-Purdue Index. Our hypothetical student can take the CLA+ and employers can see quickly and inexpensively how he or she fares relative to, say, a 3.1 student graduating from the University of Virginia, UCLA, or Swarthmore College, far more selective institutions.  On the basis of those test results, some of the students at the less selective universities will manage to get interviews and serious consideration by employers.

The Gallup-Purdue Index will provide assessment of institutions -how, on average, do their students fare in their post-graduate life? A good bit of that relates to occupational success -the type of job they hold and how much they make. But the new survey given relatively recent graduates apparently will get into other things as well, such as the degree of community engagement of the alumni.  Not only is this information useful to employers (should we even bother to interview graduates of Purdue or North Carolina State University?), but it helps universities identify their strengths and weaknesses regarding their own preparation of students for the real world. It puts pressure on poorly assessed schools to do better.  And students of schools with strong showing on the Gallup-Purdue Index can use that indicator in trying to gain future employment.

Why We Need These Tests Now

There are three fundamental reasons why we need these instruments now, but did not need them nearly as much in, say, 1960 or 1980. First, college students simply are not nearly as engaged in their academic pursuits as they were a couple of generations ago. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Time Use Survey and other data sources confirm today’s students spend far less time (typically under 30 hours a week) on academic pursuits than their grandparents did. It is hard to learn if you spend little time going to class or studying.

Second, grade inflation has gotten to the point that the evaluation of student academic performance as represented by grade point averages is dramatically less meaningful than it used to be. The colleges have abdicated a responsibility to seriously and rigorous assess their students’ performance. Hence new forms of assessment are necessary.  In the middle of the last century, a typical grade point average (on a four point scale) was around 2.5 -consistent with a student earning one-half “B” grades and one half “Cs”. Today it is over 3.0 —above a “B” average. At some schools it is even much higher.

Third, in 1960, fewer than 10 percent of adult Americans were college graduates. Even those attending so-so institutions with so-so grades were part of the elite, and the number of graduates was far smaller than the number of relatively good paying managerial, professional, and technical jobs that college graduates typically filled. Today, over 30 percent of adults have four year degrees, more than the number of relatively high paying, highly skilled jobs. Consequently, we today have more janitors with bachelor’s degrees than chemists. The college diploma is losing its value as a screening device -a means of certifying competence. Thus new instruments are needed.

I rejoice in the development of these two new instruments and hope they get widespread use. Universities are providers and creators of knowledge, but have been woefully disdainful of gathering and disseminating useful knowledge about their own performance and that of their students.

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