by Mark Nemec, PhD
President & CEO
As colleges and universities start their fall sessions, President Obama’s plans for higher education need to be top of mind. Top of mind, not because his proposal will take immediate effect—hearings on the issue will take place sometime before 2015 and the President called for implementation by 2018; but rather because his August speech in Buffalo and its proposed policies fully signal what we in higher education have been anticipating: we are in an era of extra attention if not downright scrutiny.
It is not my place to say whether the scrutiny is warranted or whether the policies will be effective; our role at Eduventures is to help institutions of higher learning and those who serve them identify what is happening now and navigate what is next.
It is my place, however, based on our research, our conversations with leaders in the domain, and my own academic work to offer a few quick observations about the broader context for these proposals and what leaders need to consider.
There is no “system” of higher education in the United States.
A common critique of any ratings system, and one that is intensified here, is that such approaches drive excessive standardization and limit innovation. Proponents argue that it is common, elevated outcomes which are sought regardless of the approach. Either way, it is mistaken to think of American higher education as a monolithic system. It never has been such. Even the Morrill Act of 1862, which is often mistakenly cited as an example of a common federal approach to an educational challenge, was actually a diversified approach where states had wide latitude over how the funds were used and simply stipulated they should be directed towards education in “agriculture and the mechanic arts.” History tells us a diversity of approach has been a cornerstone of American higher education’s collective success. Leaders in the domain must continue to champion the uniqueness of their individual approaches while learning to speak the language of outcomes.
The focus on outcomes is here to stay.
While some might suggest that the focus on outcomes and metrics is a passing fad driven by politicians and pundits, we see it as part of a more fundamental shift in how all stakeholders view higher education. From prospective students and parents for the first time ever identifying “career preparedness” as the single biggest influence on college choice to donors such as Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre describing their gift to USC as an investment in an outcome, the calculus has changed.
Traditionally, across the value chain of higher education, we have focused on enhancing the inputs (i.e., access, scholarships, preparedness) and improving the process (i.e., facilities, instruction, curriculum); and have assumed or perhaps hoped these would lead to better outputs. Now, evolutions in technology and the rise in big data mean institutions no longer can expect stakeholders to make that leap of faith. Instead, all of us in higher education will have to demonstrate a return on investment.
However, utility is not the only ROI.
In speaking with presidents, provosts and their boards a common concern raised was how difficult it is to truly measure the “value” of a college education; that a focus on job placement and starting salary is far too narrow a definition. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that thinking of higher education in terms of ROI underserves our greater purpose.
I would suggest it is naïve, and even arguably tone deaf, to not discuss our value in terms of ROI. Career preparedness and earnings potential are central to the investment hypothesis of higher education. At the same time, they are not nor should they be the only basis for the assessment of our society’s or any one individual’s investment. In clearly economic terms, the broader impact that universities have upon their communities and regions must also be considered. More importantly, higher education is central to the creation of social & cultural capital and is the single biggest factor in civic engagement. Instead of saying our ROI cannot quantified, universities and their leaders need to capture those metrics which quantify the experience and articulate outcomes beyond those which are careerist and insure those are part of any scorecard or ratings scheme.
Needless to say, these are top line thoughts. This era of scrutiny will not be brief and will require thoughtful adaption as well as well as innovation. Please continue to engage in the conversation as to how higher education can both adapt and innovate with us through this blog and during our Back to School Webinar Series all next week. As always, I also encourage you to reach out to me directly at email@example.com.