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Data Analysis and Our Capacity to Measure Higher Ed’s Value

The EvoLLLution | Data Analysis and Our Capacity to Measure Higher Ed’s Value
There’s more to measuring the value of higher education than completion rates alone.

I went to college and I had a great experience. I went to a college in another state, my parents paid for almost all of it and I basically came out of college with very little debt—quite a success story by today’s standards, it would seem. I have a bachelor’s of arts degree in American history; I work in the information technology field. I was going to be a teacher and even went an extra year to get my teaching credential, so am I still a success? I make a lot more money today in the field of information technology then I ever would have as a teacher, but would I be here today without my history degree? This is a question of return on investment.

More and more politicians and pundits ask and question whether a college degree is worth the money. Typically the way that we measure return on investment is in dollars. I can say definitively that just having a degree has helped me financially. In my first real job I was able to get $2,000 more per year because I had a degree, which at the time was a 10 percent increase. I’m not sure anyone has that data anywhere, however, so how would anyone know that? How would anyone measure that I’ve had opportunities because of my degree, even though it is not in the field I entered, that others without a degree don’t and won’t have?

I ask these questions because this is what I do. I work in business intelligence at Arizona State University so it’s my job to measure things and make that data available to those that need that information. Arizona State University is the largest public university in the country and with a record 83,000+ students this last fall, we have a lot of data. But how do you measure success? If a student completes and gets a degree, we consider that a success, right? There have been studies that show that having a college degree is better for you financially and even now they say it’s better for your health. We have been focused on improving our graduation rate and we’ve improved our six-year graduation rate to 62 percent (with the vast majority of those graduates earning their degree in four years).

But what of the students who haven’t graduated? Has there been no return on their investment? Neither Bill Gates nor Mark Zuckerberg graduated from college; did they receive no return on their investment? Would either one be where they are today if they hadn’t attended Harvard? Is higher education simply about getting a degree? What about learning in the classroom? What about the people that you meet by attending a university or college? Those things change you and make you a different person, but how do we measure that?

What about failure? If you fail out of college, is there no return on investment? Don’t we learn from our mistakes? What about the student who failed a class? Did they get no return on their investment? Don’t we learn more from our failures? I’ve worked for over 20 years in higher education and I’ve heard people say often, “Students have a right to fail.” At times that seemed like a cop out, as if we don’t need to help them, if they want to take a class they’re not ready to take, well, they have a right to fail. But as I have raised children and researched how we learn and what we learn, I see that yes, students do have a right to fail. Without failure what do we learn? If a student does poorly on a placement exam, but thinks they can still take English 101, shouldn’t they have the right to try? And if they fail, won’t they then learn that they weren’t ready and maybe they’ll do better in a remedial class because they’ll now know without a doubt what they need to learn?

But as state budgets shrink and that cost gets passed on to the students more and more and the State Legislatures ask us to prove that there is a return on their investment, how do we measure failure in a way that shows it as positive? I can gather all of the data that says students were retained or they graduated and I might be able to show that our alumni are successful, if they complete the surveys we send them, but how do I measure that a student benefitted from just being at our campus? How do I show that when they failed a class it was life changing for them? How do we let prospective students know that just because they get a degree in American history, that doesn’t mean they can’t go into Information Technology, but they’ll be better off for having that degree? When Andrew Luck decided to stay another year at Stanford to finish his degree instead of going out into the NFL Draft, why did everyone say he made a poor choice? In this country, we don’t value education for what it is: a chance to grow as a person and learn about you.

We in Business Intelligence will continue to work to show that students are gaining from education, even as students are more and more weary of giving us their data and want more and more privacy. In the meantime, if you value education and all that it’s done for you or your family then let your legislators know that, let them know that education is important, and regardless of what the charts and graphs say, it matters.

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