The Scorecard May Not Tell the Score
Friday, August 30, 2013
Scoring higher ed's success
AS I SEE IT
By Jack Calareso
In recent days, President Obama has unveiled his plan to reform higher education. The plan includes a "report card" for every college and university that measures affordability (tuition rates and increases, scholarships, loan debt), access (percentage of students eligible for Pell grants), and outcomes (graduation rates, transfer rates, graduate earnings, graduate school admissions).
The federal government is not alone in promoting this simplified grading system. For years, families have used published rating systems from magazines, book companies and educationally related organizations to determine college rankings. Ranking systems abound so that you can not only find the college with the highest graduation rates, but the institution that parties the most.
Scorecards and rating systems have become a phenomenon. Self-appointed experts frequently publish lists and assessments based on partial and unsubstantiated data and analyses that are not fully explained or vetted. Sadly, these get published (often self-published on the Internet), read by prospective students, and add to the confusion of college choice.
The fact of the matter is that all college-bound students are not the same. President Obama has often said, and I agree, that every American should have the opportunity for a college education. I would go further and say that every American should have the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree. But not every student is academically able, and some will need more time and extra support.
My advice to every parent and prospective student is that if you can be admitted to Harvard, Yale or Princeton - and can afford it - go. If you want to be further away from home, Stanford is not a bad choice either. But not every student can either meet the admission standards or afford an Ivy League school. And thankfully, there are colleges and universities willing to admit these students and help them to succeed.
President Obama's plan also calls for colleges to be penalized for low performance with less federal financial aid. While this seems to be a logical outcome to a scorecard approach, I wonder if this will cause colleges and universities to become more selective and only admit students who demonstrate a greater ability to succeed.
As most qualified researchers know, statistics can vary depending on the sources used, methodology and analysis procedures. Don't let skewed data and grading systems compromise the college search process. Use all of the accurate information you can obtain from qualified sources, as well as the college or university itself, and then visit, visit, visit before you make your decision. Not every college is Harvard - but Harvard isn't for everyone.
Over the past few weeks, Anna Maria College has lost two extraordinary Trustees, Al Lagan and Edith LaVigne. Both led extraordinary lives, had wonderful families, and displayed exemplary bravery and faith as they faced battles with illness and ultimately passed away. They were good friends of the College and will be missed by all of us.
While I am tempted to share more personal details about their lives, I think the more important lessons we can learn from Al and Edith are the true meanings of service. They were both good people, but they were great Trustees. They were great leaders and servants.
To be a good servant, a person has to have a deep and abiding commitment to the mission of the organization. Some people serve on Boards for self-interest or to do the organization a favor. But a great Trustee cares deeply about the mission of the organization and believes in the value of the organization.
Edith LaVigne was an alumna of AMC (as were her two sisters). Her dedication to AMC generated from her experience as a student and her reflection on the ways the College changed and transformed her life. Al Lagan had no affiliation with AMC before agreeing to serve as a Trustee. But he had a deep commitment to Catholic education and valued institutions like AMC that provided educational opportunity to those with limited means and great potential. While they may have arrived at their point of commitment to the mission from different directions, they shared and demonstrated this belief in the core values of AMC in similar ways.
To be a good servant, a person has to be willing to devote time and energy to the work of the Board. It is not enough to simply attend meetings and events or lend your name to a Trustee roster. A great Trustee reads the documents, studies the issues and comes prepared to critique, comment, analyze and help to make the best decisions for our students.
Al’s background was in financial planning. He was always prepared to help the College better understand issues related to budgets, investments and financial viability. But he contributed equally to areas related to education, programs, fund raising, governance, etc. Edith was an educator, but shared her real life experience and her astute insights in many ways. Both cared about the whole AMC and worked hard to be the best Trustees possible. They were both engaged leaders of the Board and the College.
To be a good servant, a person has to understand the difference between leadership and management. Trustees have a leadership role and need to be careful not to interfere with day to day administration. Edith and Al understood this balancing act perfectly and never crossed the line. They were deeply involved in strategic planning, policy development, program approval, and took their fiduciary responsibilities seriously. They held the administration accountable, but never tried to be college administrators. They helped make the best decisions and then supported these decisions fully.
Finally, it is often said that a good servant shares her or his time, talent and treasure. Al and Edith epitomized this maxim. They were always available to take a phone call or to meet; to offer insights, advice and support; to share their knowledge and wisdom; and, to generously support the College financially.
Anna Maria College has lost two great Trustees and two even better friends. I don’t know if I will find new friends like Edith and Al, but I hope for the College’s sake that we find similar Trustees in the future. And their model of service and commitment will serve as the standard for all Trustees now and forever.
(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)
There is a book that will not be released until next February that I am anxious to read. Entitled, How College Works, this book will provide insights on how colleges can provide the highest quality education even with limited budgets and modest increases in financial aid. The book promises to provide strategies to improve the educational experience of students that, according to the authors’ research, can be successful, but not terribly expensive.
The authors, Christopher Takacs and Daniel Chambliss, recently made a presentation at the American Sociological Association annual meeting and shared one of their key findings that will be included in the book. Simply said, their research supports the notion that a student’s decision about his/her major is significantly influenced by the first professor who teaches an introductory course. An inspiring and caring faculty member will lead to a positive decision to continue in that major. A single negative experience in this introductory course will often lead to a decision to look for another major.
The basis for this conclusion was a study of 100 students at a small college. The researchers tracked the educational choices of these students. Through interviews, these students shared their original educational plans and the reasons why they either continued with that major or changed to another major. Student interviews covered both the four years of college and post college years.
The results raise significant questions about the common belief that students choose majors because of the potential for financial success. According to this research, “quality of teaching” and personal attention from faculty members is more important. The authors note that the attempts to attract students to STEM majors (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) typically include data about job opportunities and income levels. This research argues that who teaches these courses, especially at the introductory level, could very well be a more important recruiting tool.
The authors’ recommendations are logical and straightforward. If departments and majors want more students to study their disciplines, they need to have their best faculty members teach introductory courses. These are often courses in the general education curriculum where students are first exposed to various fields of study.
While this may seem logical, it is not the common practice. Most often the senior faculty in a department are assigned to upper level courses and/or allowed to spend part of their time in research or individual work with upper class majors. Many of these faculty members prefer not to teach introductory classes which can be larger in size and include students less serious about the discipline.
The authors make it clear that the affinity for the discipline is not simply related to the quality of lectures and classroom presentations. Student interest is more highly correlated to “the extent to which professors were engaged with students, took steps to get to know their students, were personally accessible, and so forth. This is about the caliber of the people you meet in the classroom."
Freshmen will be arriving on our campuses in a matter of days. Decisions about field of studies and majors will be made in the coming months. Hopefully, their interests will be matched with the best professors we have!
(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)
It is hard to believe that summer is winding down … at least on college campuses. We have recently completed two weeks of enrichment programs for new students. Student athletes arrive in a few days to begin their pre-season training. And freshmen arrive in less than three weeks.
The return of students brings an excitement and enthusiasm as the core mission of the College … teaching and learning … takes place within our community of scholars and learners. But students also present challenges as a few exhibit behaviors that are inconsistent with college values and dangerous for their own well-being. One of these is binge drinking.
Binge drinking is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as consuming five or more drinks in less than two hours (four or more drinks for women). Most binge drinkers are not alcohol dependent. Rather, it is a behavior practiced periodically and sometimes regularly by the young and the old. For example, one in six adults binge drinks about four times per month. And for colleges, the following statistic creates a major concern. Approximately 90% of the alcohol consumed by men and women under the age of 21 is in the form of binge drinking. In other words, when they drink, they often binge.
All colleges have programs and services to address this issue. At freshmen orientation, for example, I give a talk to all new students where I graphically describe the effects of binge drinking on their personal and academic lives. We also provide training and education programs in the residence halls and through our counseling and health centers. We sponsor and host events regularly where students can (hopefully) see that they can socialize and have fun without alcohol. But the reality of binge drinking remains.
About two weeks ago, the Boston Globe ran a feature story entitled, “Dartmouth College Tackles Binge Drinking Culture.” I typically look for ideas about addressing this problem in hopes that we can improve our programs, better serve the needs of our students, and ultimately reduce the number of binge drinkers on our campus.
According to this article, Dartmouth has experienced a significant drop in the number of students requiring hospitalization with blood alcohol levels of 0.25% (three times the legal limit to drive). This past year, 31 students were hospitalized. Two years earlier, that number was 80.
The key to the Dartmouth program is peer driven initiatives. They have increased their focus on student to student education programs and more individualized counseling and education. One idea that makes a good deal of sense to me is called the Green Team at Dartmouth College.
Dartmouth pays students to attend parties in small groups and to remain sober. These students look for ways to help other students who are drinking to excess or acting in ways that can be dangerous for them and others. They do not report these students to authorities, but rather try to help them by offering them something to eat, asking that they not be served additional drinks, and/or finding friends to take care of them for the rest of the evening. They speak to women about the risks of being with/dating a binge drinker. These actions are done as discretely as possible and seem to be well received.
No one expects to eradicate binge drinking. Sadly, alcohol consumption is as endemic to college life as it is to social life throughout America. Just attend a sporting event or a concert and watch the levels of alcohol consumption.
But we can do better in our efforts to help students make good decisions about their lives. We will always need enforcement and sanctions, but peer led programs may prove more effective. Maybe I should have a student give my speech at Orientation this year. I am willing to try anything that works.
(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)
This is an interesting time on a college campus. We are in the midst of welcoming our new students through summer orientation and enrichment programs. Student athletes report to campus in less than two weeks. The new semester begins in less than a month.
At the same time, we are actively recruiting the freshman class for Fall 2014. High school students are visiting the campus every day and admissions counselors are preparing for their travel and communications activities.
One of the great mysteries of the college search process is why students prefer one school over another. Is it the impression of the physical campus? Is it the tour guide? Is it the curriculum or academic opportunities? Is it the athletic or cocurricular program? Is it the faculty or staff? The answer is “yes” to all of them.
Last week I conducted a class on leadership for the new students in our summer enrichment program. As they introduced themselves, it was no surprise that most of the students were from New England with a smaller number from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and beyond.
While there is no common answer as to why a prospective student prefers a specific school, a recent ACT report helps us to understand the type of student who is interested in attending a college further away from home.
ACT, formerly known as American College Testing, is one of the two standardized tests administered nationally to high school students and used by many colleges and universities as one of their admissions acceptance variables (the other test is the College Board’s SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test]). In addition to the ACT exam, ACT conducts research and provides other assessment resources for all levels of education.
ACT analyzed data and found that there were two clear correlations. First, the higher a student scored on a standardized exam (like the ACT or the SAT), the further away from home they travelled to attend college. Second, the more education that their parents have, the further away from home their children go to attend their higher education experience. Why?
It is not because higher achieving students want to get away from their parents or more highly educated parents want to send their children away. In fact, parents typically prefer their children to attend college closer to home.
The reasons seem to be related to knowledge, opportunity and confidence. There is evidence that higher achieving students and parents with more education tend to know more about the college admissions process, are aware of more colleges and have the awareness and skill to conduct better research on academic programs, scholarships, etc.
These students and families also tend to have the financial resources needed to both visit colleges further away and to attend these institutions. Finally, they also have more confidence in being away from home and letting their children be further away.
In the end, the college decision process should be about fit. Whether near or far, big or small, it should be the institution that best serves the educational needs and personal values of the student. And there is no single answer for every prospective student.
(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)