Establishing a Student-Centric Ranking System: Eight Factors To ConsiderBruce Leslie | Chancellor, Alamo Colleges
The adoption of performance-based funding in higher education is accelerating as a consumer issue by state and federal initiatives to measure the value of a college degree, which is now deemed fundamental for everyone (the free college movement is certainly a reflection of this perception). Institutional leaders have also adopted indicators to provide focus and accountability within the academic culture that has traditionally contended that learning is an art rather than a science (and therefore not “measurable”).
However, in today’s environment, colleges and universities have had to implement strategies that document student and fiscal outcomes and effectively affirm to stakeholders the institution’s effectiveness. The most frequently utilized metrics are student-based lag indicators—or outcomes: degree completion, graduate employment and earnings and, for community colleges, transfer success. Fiscal metrics include budgets and audits, personnel utilization, safety, risk management, bond ratings, and material acquisitions and loss. These are considered lead or process indicators. Increasingly, the fiscal health of the organization determines whether student success is even possible.
Under today’s fiscal, technological, generational and pervasive change dynamics, institutional leaders are forced to improve management and accountability to ensure the college remains solvent, continuously adapts to the environment and invests strategically in the organization’s health and achievement of student learning objectives.
Thus, both student and organizational metrics are interwoven and increasingly driven by demands from stakeholders that colleges and universities be more relevant. As a result, there is a fear among educators that colleges are losing focus on the true purpose of college: the education of the individual who has unique requirements for learning. This perception holds that the educational purpose is special and unique to each student rather than “industrial” with a singular design. Many educators have strongly opposed this push toward corporatization, consistently rejecting any consideration of the student as customer. The argument has merit, though increasingly students expect the same treatment from their university/college that they receive from their interactions with a host of technologically sophisticated suppliers, such as Apple or Amazon. Students are aware that they have multiple educational choices, many of which come at a lower cost than a traditional postsecondary experience, are more conducive to the student’s lifestyle and are better able to adjust to the student’s complex needs. So certainly treating the student as a customer builds student loyalty, attracts prospective students and continuously monitors and responds to the students’ changing demands and expectations. The reputation of the college, and how it competes for students, is a powerful measure that addresses the consumer’s expectations. One of the highest expectations on any student’s list is that their degree should provide them access to their desired career and earnings.
These lag or outcome measures are now well established as they provide the public with a source of both consumer comparison and institutional impetus to improve student outcomes and achieve societal objectives by effectively preparing graduates as economic contributors and citizens. However, these lag metrics ignore a set of factors that have sparked a strong reaction from educators fearful of the demise of the “traditional” relationship between faculty and student, which emphasizes the individual and unique maturation process of learning guided by the experience and knowledge of a dedicated educator. They also ignore the important personal attributes—the oft referred to soft skills, but which Secretary of Labor Perez during a recent visit called “essential skills”—that are required of 21st Century citizens and employees. Evidence indicates that these skills also act as lead measures that predict greater student success in achieving the desired academic outcomes. It has been traditionally argued that these skills are inherent in and acquired through the academic disciplines. But the vocal frustration of employers that graduates lack these skills indicates a different strategy must be included in the college experience.
There is evidence that students welcome the opportunity to acquire these skills. There is, thus, an argument that colleges that establish and brand themselves as leaders in this movement will attract greater numbers of students and community affirmation and support.
Instead of emphasizing completion over knowledge gained and within a specific time frame, earnings within six months of graduation, or student satisfaction with campus amenities, we should emphasize factors that are known to increase student learning, growth, and satisfaction in the student’s own development. Concurrently, these attributes directly impact completion, employment and earnings that are the mainstay of today’s indicators. Such student-focused measures should include:
1. Acceptance: Students are successful when they are known personally by faculty and staff, are acknowledged as unique and welcomed regardless of their uniqueness;
2. Relationships: Students are successful when they have a strong bond with educators as mentors who are sensitive and capable of guiding the student as they search for life’s meaning;
3. Engagement: Students who are actively engaged in the life of the college, in the learning journey, both in and out of class, are more successful and are learning the non-academic or “essential” skills that are crucial for their ultimate success in society;
4. Life/Leadership Skills: Students are more successful when they know how to manage the complexities of college, work, finances and family, overcoming the challenges life throws us;
5. Purpose: Students who know what they want to do are more successful in college and career;
6. Entrepreneurship: Students who learn leadership skills, including entrepreneurship and human design thinking as problem-solving, decision-making strategies, are more likely to succeed in college and bring critical skills and capabilities to the community and market place;
7. Quality: Students are most proud when they have been challenged and found capable. Quality should measure what a student can do with every available degree. Community colleges have done a great job outlining specific outcomes for their AAS degree-holders, and this must track up for all other degrees on the market;
8. Affirmation: Students affirmed throughout their learning journey, overcome the frequent negative messages and are more successful. Students dropout because the environment is too difficult to maneuver, they fear failure and the challenges of managing their lives is too overwhelming; the slightest setback often terminates their journey. Being affirmed by the educator/mentor and acknowledged as capable despite the frequent academic and social setbacks can make all the difference whether a student ultimately succeeds. We continuously meet students who “overcame the odds” because they were affirmed and came to believe in themselves.
These eight lead “Student Performance Indicators” can provide the foundation to improve completion, transfer, employment and earnings that affirm the measures demanded by stakeholders of high-value, high-performance colleges today. More importantly, they also affirm educators’ desired commitment to the development of the individual student while providing the desired affirmation to the student that they are central to the strategic focus of the college/university and, therefore, valued.
Community Colleges in particular, because they are the access point to so many first-generation, underprepared and marginalized students, must excel at these measures and in consequence will achieve higher levels of student success, thereby enhancing community economic development. The organizational culture and reputation that emerges will bring greater positive attention to the college, increase its attractiveness to students, and thus its enrollments, secure its fiscal performance and produce greater value to society.