what does success mean in higher education? – a guest post by mikalia marial lemonik arthur
Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur is an associate professor of sociology at Rhode Island College. She is the author of Student Activism and Curricular Change in Higher Education.
My state, Rhode Island, is in the process of beginning an experiment with performance funding for public higher education. Because of our small size, we have only three institutions of public higher education: The University (URI), The College (RIC—my institution), and The Community College (CCRI), and thus our performance funding initiative cannot involve comparative metrics or those based on what “the top” institution in the state is doing. Therefore, the legislature instead decided to craft a performance funding formula based on their own goals for higher education outcomes. The current version of the bill—considerably improved from prior versions, due in large part to the concerted efforts of my colleagues who testified before the relevant state House and Senate committees—includes among its metrics the 100% and 150% of normative time graduation rates; the production of degrees tied to “high demand, high wage” employment opportunities in our (very small) state; and an additional measure to be decided by each of the three institutions in consultation with internal constituencies; with the potential to adjust the weights of these measures to reflect institutional missions, student body demographics, and “the economic needs of the state.”
But this is not a post about performance funding, at least not really. Rather, it is a post about what “success” means for colleges and university.
The RI state legislature has identified several potential definitions of success, which I’ll disambiguate and comment on:
- Graduation rates: Typically, and the performance funding bill in my state is no exception, graduation rates are produced in line with federal law, which requires 4-year institutions to report the number of students who began at their institution as first-time full-time freshman and graduated within 4, 6, or—since 2008—8 years of beginning (a similar metric, with shorter time frames, is used for 2-year institutions). Estimates of the percentage of students nationwide who are excluded by official graduation rates range from just under 30% to as high as 75%. Colleges like my own, which serve many transfer, part-time, and nontraditional students, have particularly large portions of the student body excluded from official graduation rates, reducing their utility substantially.
- Connection to high–demand, high-wage employment: Political figures would like to be able to tell parents and constituents that college education produces desirable employment and economic outcomes, and given state disinvestment in higher education funding, graduates hope to earn higher salaries to pay back the loans they have had to take. However, while research has made clear that students with 4-year degrees do better on the labor market in general, our understanding of the connection between degree attainment and specific occupational and economic outcomes is not as clear. National standards seem to be developing around the notion that outcomes should be measured at the 6-month-post-graduation mark, which I am sure many of us would agree is far too early to tell what is really going on. Of course, the idea that graduates should be employed in “high demand, high wage” occupations downplays the central focus of many comprehensive colleges on preparing students for careers in public and social service—social work may be high demand, but it is not high wage; education programs are seeing the demand for their graduates drop; etc.
- Graduating alumni who stay in the state: In my very small state, the legislature is extremely concerned that individuals who are educated here be retained as residents of and employees in the state. Anecdotally, I tend to believe this “problem,” such as it exists, is primarily related to the large number of students from outside our borders who we educate here in RI, most of whom never intended to reside here beyond their college years. Furthermore, our state is almost entirely part of the Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area, yet working and living in Boston—the same MSA as where students may have grown up and been educated—counts as outmigration from our state.
As educators and organizational scholars, we can easily see some of the tradeoffs these metrics suggest. For instance, it is easy to produce higher graduation rates by reducing the academic demands of college, but that is also likely to reduce the degree to which students are prepared for high-demand, high wage jobs (see Arum and Roksa 2014). Of course, we don’t actually know how to measure what they are learning or the degree to which they are prepared for careers, so that type of metric is not a serious contender. If we begin with a focus on alumni in high demand, high wage occupations, we lose sight of some of the other valuable contributions our students can make as social service or social justice workers, as well as the fact that students may have different goals than legislators (see the conclusion to Armstrong and Hamilton 2013, which presents a case study of a young woman who chose a career which did not require a college degree, was fulfilled by her choice, and explained how college was necessary to achieving her future). It is also not clear at what point post-graduation we should be measuring outcomes: 6 months? 9 months? A year? A decade? At mid-career, once students have completed their education? If we measure too early, we underestimate what our colleges can accomplish and ignore the many students still figuring things out. If we measure too late, it takes decades to get the data, and how can we tell whether it really was our institution that made the difference? Furthermore, if students really go where the demand is, that may mean crossing state borders—and the legislature does not want to lose graduates to other states after investing state dollars in them, no matter how small that investment has become.
A colleague and I are beginning a project in which we hope to explore some of these tradeoffs in the context of our own unique location, but there are broader issues here as well. How do we understand what it means for our colleges and universities to be successful? How should these metrics relate to institutional missions—in other words, even if we limit our focus to the undergraduate education function, does success look different for a community college, a public compressive college, a public research university, a private college, a private research university, etc.? And if we determine what success means for a given type of institution or even an individual college or university, how do we best communicate that to our constituents and our elected officials? Thoughts, ideas, and provocations welcome—we are hoping to do something useful with this project.