Measuring the Value of a College Degree

Not long ago, a degree was all it took to open doors. While a diploma from an Ivy League school still gets attention, the reality is that the value of a college diploma is being questioned from all sides.
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Not long ago, a degree was all it took to open doors. While a diploma from an Ivy League school still gets attention, the reality is that the value of a college diploma is being questioned from all sides. Parents and students want to be reassured that they are not being shortchanged when they sign a student loan. Employers need to know their new hires are capable of the adaptive and innovative thinking required for their businesses to remain competitive, and lawmakers in Congress and state capitols want to know exactly what their increasingly scarce dollars are paying for.

In the past, those in the academy have been reluctant to quantify the value of a college education. In fact, it has long been argued that academic inquiry and other intangibles are what have made the college experience so valuable. While some might disagree with that claim, the reality is that in order for our system of higher education to survive in this era of limited funding and escalating costs, we need to prove that students are learning and that our colleges and universities are capable of driving innovation and creative thinking.

Not surprisingly, even the most traditional of universities are now experimenting with new approaches to measuring learning. For example, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford are all diving into the world of free online coursework that leads to alternative ways of certifying "mastery", in so-called MOOCS -- massively open online courses. And in Silicon Valley, the Mozilla Foundation is promoting the concept of open badges, which demonstrate mastery of both formal and informal learning.

This poses a challenge in rethinking how we rank and rate colleges today, which has traditionally been based on an alchemistic mix of hard-to-measure elements such as reputation and campus-based statistics, such as acceptance rates, library and endowment sizes, etc. The problem is that none of these metrics directly measure how students do once they arrive on campus. And while a diploma is a signal of what an individual has learned, it is not necessarily indicative of the actual skills and expertise that individual is ready to apply.

Critics point to what the well-intentioned but poorly executed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has done to K-12 education, with its focus on standardized tests that have narrowed instruction and promoted a culture that strays far from the notion of academic freedom. With the federal government and state lawmakers increasingly demanding improved accountability in higher education, it is no wonder that many in the academy fear a reprise of NCLB at the college level.

Many of us would argue that accountability in itself is not necessarily bad or good, but that what really matters is how and what is measured, and by whom. It is up to colleges and universities, and the institutions that accredit them, to make sure that whatever system falls into place does not repeat the same mistakes that have been made in K-12. Progress has been slow, but it appears that the higher education sector is up to the task. Groups like the New Leadership Alliance are building consensus around the idea that colleges should measure, use, and make public evidence of student learning. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges is incorporating measures of proficiency and benchmarking into its accreditation process in ways that avoid dictating curricula or specific approaches.

A few common themes surface from such approaches: It appears that the best way to compare widely different institutions and the students they serve is to measure proficiency in writing, communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills, rather than rote learning of subject material. And while no one in higher education wants an NCLB-like focus on data, all colleges -- public and private -- are under intense pressure to contain costs and ensure that they are getting the biggest bang for their buck. Information about what is working can only serve to help colleges make smarter decisions about how to shape their instructional programs. And the best approaches to measuring colleges and universities have already come -- and must continue to come -- from the people who know them the best, not from policymakers or the purveyors of standardized tests. Together, these approaches can help preserve academic freedom and institutional autonomy, rather than undermine them.

Colleges and universities have never been good about using or sharing data: they gather a lot of information they never use, and they do not gather a lot of the information that they actually need. But recent research offers hope that the emerging consensus on measuring student progress is not just another hoop to jump through. Instead, the research suggests that this approach will improve faculty engagement and enhance student learning, all while providing demonstrable proof that colleges and universities are effectively serving the public interest.

So go ahead and put the diploma on the wall where it belongs -- and focus on validating its worth with more meaningful measures of a college education.

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