Why Current College Measures Fail Today's Students

Years of hard work and months of nervous anticipation are coming to a crisis point for high school seniors around the country. May 1st is decision day, the national deadline to accept a college admission offer. Choosing the "right" school can be hard, and some students are actually being led down the wrong path - by the federal government.

The class of 2016 is the first with access to the Department of Education's new "College Scorecard," which, among other things, attempts to measure the average salary earned by each school's alumni 10 years after graduation. The Scorecard also focuses heavily on student debt by examining loan default rates.

These are important data points, but they are insufficient to judge the quality of a college. We should not rank an institution of higher education based solely on the financial well-being of its graduates when so many other factors are key to measuring the impact of a college experience for today's young people.

While some teachers, government and public service employees, nurses and scientists are paid reasonably well, few are making as much as the typical Wall Street employee. Has the college that graduated more research scientists, city council members or social workers than hedge fund managers somehow failed?

The best colleges produce graduates who will make a difference in the world, both through careers that are highly lucrative and those that are less so. As educators, our mission is to create a varied and challenging educational experience that facilitates the development of core skills that will contribute to our graduates' success in any career path. If we do our job well, graduates should have limitless options - and the self-knowledge to choose the options that are most satisfying.

To measure the true value of what colleges provide to students requires looking at multiple dimensions of the undergraduate experience and their impact over time. In an attempt to do this, researchers from Purdue University and the polling firm Gallup created the Gallup-Purdue Index, which looks at the overall "well-being" of college graduates, including how engaged they are with their work, their relationships, their physical health, their community, their economic situation, and their sense of purpose as alternative measures of how well a college serves its graduates. These researchers have identified several key experiences that are common to graduates who lead fulfilling lives. Among these are developing a relationship with a mentor while in school; taking on a project that lasts a semester or more; doing a job or internship directly connected to their chosen field; and becoming deeply involved in a campus organization or activity.

With generally smaller class sizes and more individualized attention paid to students, liberal arts colleges tended to do better on most of the Gallup/Purdue measures. But all college leaders need to pay attention to these findings, particularly as they pertain to students from lower income families and those from underrepresented groups, who are less likely to have these opportunities, due either to commitments outside of school or less familiarity with navigating college.

I look forward to the next iteration of the College Scorecard, when a commitment to social responsibility and community service will - I hope - be reflected in improved college success measures that account for important careers of all kinds. I also encourage those at the Purdue-Gallup poll and other similar organizations to continue their efforts to measure some of the less tangible, but nonetheless critically important, life benefits of an outstanding education.