Be Careful What You Wish For

President Obama’s call for an increase in college graduation rates and the establishment of a $2.5 billion college completion fund begins to address a vexing issue for those of us employed in higher education, namely, how do we make the United States more economically competitive in a world that demands a well-trained, college-educated workforce? The president’s call is welcome. Graduation rates need to increase, especially among under-represented groups and first-generation college students. If we want more Americans to become more competitive in a smaller and smaller “world village,” we must pay attention not only to those who traditionally pursue higher education, but also to those who do not have such a tradition. No doubt, “a high tide lifts all boats.”
However, this insistence on increasing the numbers of college graduates appears to overshadow a more overarching but simpler objective of higher education—to educate rather than graduate students. Consider two statements common in higher education, both of which I have heard in conversation, one with a student, the other with a faculty member (thankfully, not at my current institution, which clearly does focus on educating rather than graduating students).
The first conversation was with a paralegal student I advised when I was an academic dean at a two-year for-profit institution in the western U.S. The conversation went something like:

Student) “Dr. McKitrick, the teacher isn’t teaching me right. I need you to work with her because I’m not learning a thing.”
(Me) “What seems to be the problem?”
(Student) “Well, she makes me read one hundred pages before class, and that’s just not fair. I work and go to school, by the way.”
(Me) “What do you mean? One hundred pages don’t seem too much for a paralegal program.”
(Student) “Yeah, but I came here because I want to graduate. My friends at other schools don’t have to study this much. Can’t you just tell her that this isn’t the right way to teach?”

The second conversation was with a faculty member with whom I worked a number of years ago at an institution I was consulting with in the Midwest:
Me) “Our accreditors want to make sure that students are acquiring the skills we say they’ll acquire in our general education program. That means, as a program, we’ll need to find ways of measuring and discussing what our students learn”
(Faculty) “What do you mean? I mean, grades already do that”
(Me) “Well, you know that grades are a summary of different important things, like attendance in class, quiz scores, and so forth, so maybe we can find a way to measure specific learning objectives.”
(Faculty) “What? I came to this university because I want to teach students, not to measure what you want. I don’t get your point.”

The first conversation resulted in the student’s issuing a complaint to state regulators that he was not receiving the education he deserved because he was being harassed by his instructor. The second conversation resulted in years of opposition by the faculty member to assessing how well his students were learning. In the long term, the first resulted in a brief state investigation which was quickly dismissed. The second resulted in longstanding opposition to assessing learning outcomes because a college education was considered to be solely about teaching. Both cases reveal that students and a few faculty still believe that graduation rates and grades are the primary indicators of student learning rather than an independent assessment of student learning itself.
Admittedly, those who emphasize the importance of increasing graduation rates have a point. Increases in the sheer number of college graduates (an oft-cited goal is that U.S. government officials would like the number of U.S. workers with undergraduate degrees to exceed the number in Norway by 2020) would be quite an accomplishment, but this over-emphasis on graduation rates reminds me of students who tell me they simply want to graduate (and so I should discipline faculty who get in the way) and faculty who claim that a college education (and their role in it) is solely about teaching and research. Both are partially correct. Teaching, research, and graduation are important goals. But over-reliance on the number of students who graduate from college (i.e., graduation rates) as an indicator of some grand calculus of achievement misses the point. An undergraduate education is also about learning. It is about how well students obtain knowledge, acquire skills, and develop habits of mind (e.g., teamwork, respect for others, etc.) that help them become effective citizens, employees, and contributors to society at large.
For over a decade, the federal and state governments as well as university accreditors have strongly encouraged colleges and universities to define student learning outcomes through consultation with faculty members. They now also require these same institutions to assess student learning outcomes in ways that enable faculty to use information to inform their teaching and to work with students as they attend their classes, read their textbooks, and complete projects, assignments, and examinations that hold them accountable for learning. Yet opposition continues to assessing the quality of student learning. This opposition stems from numerous apprehensions, including fears that assessment compromises faculty autonomy, that state and federal governments will begin controlling the curricula of the many different collegiate institutions in the United States, and that assessment mandates will get in the way of teaching and learning because faculty will have to wade through bureaucratic procedures and paperwork, taking them away from their primary goal – to educate their students.
I like to think that these fears are unfounded. Most of my own work with assessment and with faculty, who usually genuinely care about their students, suggests that assessment of student learning outcomes is solely meant to inform faculty about strengths and weaknesses in student learning. The rest is up to them. And although “accountability” has been a popular word bandied about by politicians on both sides of the aisle, the main reasons for all this talk about assessment have mainly to do with maximizing the learning that goes on as a result of a college education. Assessment of student learning outcomes is not so much about graduation and retention rates, how popular and engaging faculty are in a lecture hall, or about exceeding Norway in the number and/or percentage of college graduates ready to tackle the world of work. Instead, it is about assessing how well students are acquiring knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that we tell them, their parents, and their future employers they will have when they do graduate after four years of acquired student loan debt and the “sweat equity” they have acquired after working so hard.
As the president has challenged us to do, flash forward to 2020 in a hypothetical world where the U.S. has the highest graduation rates in the world and the highest number of college graduates anywhere to be found. What would that world look like? An overemphasis on graduation rates, instead of an emphasis on quality learning outcomes, may create a world in which we have many college graduates, but few who are truly skilled. Colleges and institutions in the for-profit, state, and private sectors generally care about learning outcomes. But what happens if they are pressured through federal and state policies to graduate as many students as possible, under-represented or not? Certainly, we will have met our goal. But will the increased $2.5 billion investment have been worth it?
Be careful what you wish for, Mr. President. Higher graduation rates are not necessarily the tide that lifts all boats.


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