Air Quality Index.png

Can a Single Rating System Garner Widespread Support?

Who Is Doing the Rating and for What Purpose?

Can and Should Most Colleges Be Anything Other Than Job Training Centers? 

The image I used to portray this post is my playful attempt to point out the diversity of reasons prospective students and their parents and advisers may have for choosing a college. There is certainly nothing irrational about a college rating system based on State College of Pennsylvania's Air Quality Index for American communities WHEN THE STUDENT HAS SYMPTOMS OF ASTHMATIC BRONCHITIS. There will always be thousands of students whose choice is guided by proximity to home, national reputation of the colleges, and/or the preferences of significant peers. Those students hardly need a rating system.  The metrics for their choice are easily attainable.

Similarly what I am proposing has little relevance for the Harvard's, Stanford's, Yale's, and Swarthmores. Whether they meet the criteria I am about to suggest is largely irrelevant to their ongoing reputations.

 This post is my arrogant effort to answer the first question above with "yes." Up front several things need to be said.  

  1. What I am recommending should annoy everyone. The perfect is frequently the foe of the  good. Even I do not desire what I am suggesting.
  2. Pluralism is required for this exercise.                                                                                                       a. Most Americans see college in a uni-dimensional way as an avenue to financial opportunity. How anyone can doubt that claim escapes me. Listen to President Obama who should know better. His mantra-like desire for the U.S. to graduate more people from colleges is justified on narrow economic grounds that mimic what I hear students and parents say almost universally.  Liberal arts departmental recruiters will often lead their sales talk for why someone should major in their discipline with an exaggerated narrative about the monetary possibilities associated with majoring in that department.  Even Ivy League colleges find themselves evaluated by the "investment criterion", rather than many of the non-financial benefits they often tout.                                                                                                     b. Faculty in many departments will continue to resist vocationalism in college curricula. Historically faculty, even in professional schools like law schools, have won many battles with those who see colleges as transition points in the movement from youth to a middle-class or even better-paying job. Most college courses have little direct vocational benefit beyond training the learner to be a teacher in that particular discipline. Graduate mentors make it clear that a fulfilling career is tied to fealty to the body of knowledge in the discipline and not to something so ordinary as assisting the money-making impetus of students. Faculty have little knowledge about labor markets and are often quite content to maintain that ignorance throughout their careers. Such faculty are not going to disappear. I am decidedly among this cohort of faculty.  My concerns are to provide encouragement of specific skills and attitudes that assist in living the examined life, in creating the capabilities to be a wiser friend, significant other, consumer and voter. This attitude of mine and my colleagues in honorable and in many ways anachronistic; we hold educational aspirations that are for the few, the very few.                                              c. Alumni are increasingly important because the public sector has largely turned its back on higher education, except for a few selected areas. Alumni have careers that often define their self-concept.  Not surprisingly they support job-linked higher education and a vibrant athletic program at their home university. I cannot stress enough how uninterested alumni and students and parents are in enhanced cognitive skills or the encouragement of life-long learning. They might say they are interested in a survey, but they neither know what those terms mean nor does such an objective inspire their passions.                                                                                                                                                   d. College administrators are not a group whose interests must be addressed in a proposed rating system. They now are careerists who will move in whatever direction enhances their CV's. They are people with great power, but that power is wielded instrumentally as defined by others.  So their interests are reactive to what the 3 groups above and governmental budgets teach them they are supposed to do. The idea of a college administrator with a unique/independent educational vision is increasingly available only in museums of university excellence. (The President at my university openly says that a primary goal is to increase our standing in the national rankings. Apparently, she is unaware of the existence of dozens of CONFLICTING ranking systems for colleges.)

a-c above are not going anywhere; these are firmly entrenched constituencies. Each has persistent desires, and each occupies a position permitting them to exercise pull. Ignoring any of the 3 in a rating system seems to me to misunderstand the pressures that define a modern college.

What I am going to propose says as much about me of course as it does about he rating system. Many so-called experts in making a college choice use criteria that I consider only moderately important. I am an academic; hence, I am not impressed by rating systems that work hard to set the "academic" aside. But I think that what I am about to propose has the potential to enlist support from all 3 groups.  These groups have been implicitly struggling for many decades about what a college should be doing. Each is very frustrated by its failures. 

My rating system requires evaluation external to the institution. I am unfamiliar with any profession or institution that can fairly evaluate itself. The moral hazard associated with self-evaluation in a market-driven culture is simply too strong to be resisted, except on occasion. Rating systems are a waste of time to me in the absence of external assessment. I have ideas about how to organize external assessment efficiently and in a fashion that would honor the inclinations of all 3 of the constituencies I discussed above, but that would be another post.

My rating system is beguilingly simple. It applies to colleges and departments within colleges.

#1 Career satisfaction measured by the employment rate and "salary satisfaction" of graduates using longitudinal data. The definition of "employment" and the instrument used to measure salary satisfaction should be determined by some independent group outside the university who listens to university faculty, but does not simply accept their recommendations. The idea for this criterion is that it shows cognizance of society's basic understanding of what a college is. As much as I disagree with the criterion, I am embarrassed by the audacity of faculty like myself who wish to fight to the death to construct a world of students, parents, and policy makers who never existed and never will exist. Clinging to our remarkable minority of success stories who acquire the itch to learn and learn when they experience college is akin to clinging to a tiny rubber duck in the midst of an ocean of sharks. We want the duck to morph into an ocean liner, but does anyone really think that it will? For those wincing in pain at the thought of this criterion, just think of the massive surge of support of all kinds that universities would receive if we embraced this criterion.

#2 Measured performance in a cross-section of college classes counting the number of critical thinking, integrative, and application questions ASKED BY STUDENTS during the learning experience AND measured performance on the listening skills, organization of evidence, and awareness of alternative problem-solving skills. Yes, each of these is measurable; instruments already exist to measure them, and others can be developed. This criterion should be highly attractive to faculty who wish to teach liberal learning. The skills contained in these measures are the basis for the activity of learning. But here is the important point. Vocationally oriented students, parents and alumni can be educated to see these skills as complementary to long-run financial well-being.  Liberal arts advocates have always had immense difficulty convincing anyone that they were pitching something of value.  Legislatures, parents and students cannot appreciate a lexicon of liberation from dogmatism and provincialism that they themselves have never experienced. Instead of bashing their heads against this impenetrable wall, advocates of liberal learning should notice something very important-----these skills are very important to influential business and governmental leaders.  For example, I have been hired by at least 4 dozen businesses and governmental agencies to teach critical thinking skills to top managers and leaders in their organization.  I did not seek these consultations; they came to me. When this activity first started occurring, I was aghast because I had no idea that the practical world would be aware of this kind of deficiency in their deliberations. A 2nd piece of evidence that employers can be enlisted to sell liberal learning when defined as I have described it in this criterion is the new book I am writing.  The book is a celebration of asking questions. I could easily fill 30 pages of the book with lavish testimonials from business and governmental leaders articulating the dire need for their employees to ask important questions and to ask them often.

An important interest group whom I have ignored intentionally are those who claim to be championing liberal education in a quite different form than I implied above.  I would characterize them as "breadth" advocates.  They believe that a few courses in this discipline, several in that one, 2 in this area perhaps, and 1 each of this one and that one will broaden the thinking of college students.  This view is not altogether wrong, but I think it is exaggerated.  This breadth model is what is now popular.  And the result has been?

If departments would teach their body of knowledge in a spirit of doubt and alternative methods and frameworks, then the breadth model would be quite compatible with the form of liberal learning I implied in criterion #2 above. But they almost never do.  Instead, they tend overwhelmingly to teach these general courses in their disciplines in a manner that mimics the very vocationalism they often claim to abhor.  The ideal for departments is to create additional miny-me's, i.e., students who will be able to teach in that department later or perhaps have a career that has the same title as the department in which they are majoring.  Economists encourage treasured students to become economists; psychologists are impressed by and try to reproduce more psychologists. This social reproduction process can stunt liberal education as often as it can enhance it.

What is your reaction?

What is so terribly wrong with this suggestion that I am unfamiliar with people who are advocating this suggestion?

Is the key problem with what I am suggesting that we live in an adversarial culture where, like the Congress, it is a sign of weakness to compromise?

Is it possible to reconstitute the professorate such that they would be comfortable with the criterion I am suggesting?

AuthorM Neil Browne