Focus on the Delta: The Role of a University in a Widget Driven World

"I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of man." --Thomas Jefferson.

Perhaps, no one embodied the American belief in higher education more than Thomas Jefferson. His commitment to education went well beyond the formation of the University of Virginia. He believed, wrote, and even preached about the virtues of education as vital to the American dream and his belief that tyranny was best kept in check by a well-educated citizenry.

The role of a university in our democracy has undergone many changes since the days of Jefferson. Today, as resources for higher education become more limited (inflation-adjusted state funding is significantly less than it was in 2003), and information is more accessible than ever, it may be time to reinvent the university model. The information age presents great opportunities and great challenges as we move more fully into the 21st century.

The opportunities are plentiful. On-line learning, MOOCs, and the Internet itself has democratized access to information and knowledge in ways our founding fathers could not have possibly imagined. YouTube provides anyone with internet access the tools needed to do everything from unclogging a drain to programming your computer. Universities, including my own, offer on-line classes and degree programs that can be completed almost entirely outside the traditional classroom. The efficient distribution of knowledge has never been easier and it would be foolish to ignore the opportunities generated by this new paradigm.

It is imperative, however, that we also recognize that higher education serves a deeper purpose than merely to produce graduates as efficiently as we produce widgets. If we aspire to protect democracy and increase virtue, we need to transform the lives of our graduates in the process.

At Texas Woman's University, for example, Mr. Jefferson would likely note that we are the largest public college in America primarily for women, and that women are faced with a wage disparity that discounts their contributions to the economy. He might also note that a majority of our graduates are in health related fields such as nursing, and that they do quite well in their non-stem (nursing is not considered STEM) field.

Jefferson's dream of an engaged and happy citizenry is very much alive in the information age, but his dream will not and cannot be fulfilled with the same efficiency of an instructional YouTube video.

For example, the most extensive survey of college graduates, the Gallup-Purdue Index, found that the most important factors in determining how graduates valued their education after graduation were not the levels of debt that they incurred or the salaries they were now earning. What led graduates to report that they valued their education and were satisfied with life in general was most directly correlated to whether or not they participated in meaningful internships, got involved with on-campus organizations, developed a relationship with a mentor, or worked on projects that took at least one semester to complete.

It also showed that the students least satisfied with the value of their education were graduates of for-profit institutions (the same institutions that by definition have sought the most efficiency in the delivery of information from school to student).

An even more interesting analysis was recently completed by the Economist magazine. Real Value, according to the Economist, is not simply the average salary of the graduate vs. the non-graduate, but instead the difference between the earnings of the same graduate if he or she would have simply received a degree from any institution vs. the institution actually attended. We all know that a college degree has value, what the Economist attempted to analyze was how much value was added by each institution relative to their peers.

That is the "delta".

The results were persuasive and instructive.

At the top there were names we all recognize, Washington and Lee (#1), Harvard (#4), but there were also names not usually at the top of these lists like Texas A&M International (#9) and Texas Woman's University (#45). Just as surprising, names like Princeton (#770) and Arizona State (#715) were in the bottom half.

This is not to say a degree from Princeton or Arizona State are worth less than a degree from TWU. What it does show is the universities that are making the most impact on the trajectory of their students may not be the institutions that are valued by the usual metrics of reputation, endowment, and Nobel laureates, that are considered by US News and previously widely accepted gospel.

Universities are starting to focus on the delta in the admissions process as well. The Harvard School of Public Education recently released a report calling for a re-assessment of the college admissions process to better recognize quality rather than quantity in assessing the degree to which an applicant is engaged in their community. The call for colleges to better assess whether an applicant will bring more than a list of clubs joined or "achievements unlocked" to the university environment is a further recognition that higher education must serve a higher calling.

So what can we learn from this data, in a data driven age? That the value of an education is more than a certificate on a wall and a better paycheck. That if we seek to add real value to our students' lives and to our society as a whole, we must produce citizens and not just graduates.

We must focus on educating the whole person and not merely imparting a skill that could be obtained over YouTube. We must harness and incorporate the efficiencies of the information age, but we must also keep in mind that, today as ever, the mission of a university is to produce engaged citizens capable of enlightening the world and advancing the human condition.