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Finding Metrics that Matter to Adult Students

The EvoLLLution | Finding Metrics that Matter to Adult Students
Despite the influence ratings and rankings have on prospective students’ choices, they do a poor job of reflecting the true capacity for a student to succeed at a given college or university.

Rankings and rating systems have forever changed the way we behave as consumers. We read Amazon reviews before ordering a kitchen blender. We check out Yelp before visiting a new restaurant. We consult Netflix before committing to a new television series.

It’s only natural that when it comes to choosing which college or university to attend, we want to know how our choices stack up.

And, in fact, there is no shortage of available rankings. A range of print and online publications attempt to evaluate various programs and institutions on what are often vastly different criteria. Even the U.S. Department of Education entered the game when it introduced the College Scorecard comparison tool in 2013.

For University of Maryland University College (UMUC)—the nation’s largest online public university, with more than 82,000 adult students—the ratings game can be a maddening one.

For almost 70 years, our mission has focused on bringing education within reach for adult learners, and student success has been a central measure of our effectiveness. However, for adult students, the path to a degree is often a long one, as they juggle the competing responsibilities of jobs, families and even military service.

Yet in some ranking systems, a student who takes eight years to complete an undergraduate degree isn’t counted among “successful” graduates.

Another measure takes into consideration the number of books that a university holds in its library. At UMUC, with some 85 percent of our classes offered online, we don’t have a physical library—but we do have online library services that offer access to hundreds of online databases, many with instant access, 24/7, to full-text versions of academic journals, books, magazines, and newspapers. We also have staff librarians on call with expertise in conducting online research, and we offer extended hours to accommodate our students overseas.

What about the number of full-time faculty on staff? Tenure, which typically depends on a faculty member’s publication record, may have little if any bearing on their effectiveness as a teacher. In fact, adjunct faculty who work full-time in the fields in which they teach may be far more effective in an online classroom, better informed about current trends in their respective industries, and often better able to advise adult student on their career choices.

What about graduation rates? By one common measure used by the U.S. Department of Education, UMUC’s graduation rate is less than 5 percent—wholly ludicrous when you consider that we graduated more than 10,000 students worldwide last year alone.  Unfortunately, the official graduation rate is based on the six-year graduation rate of full-time, first-time students—very few of whom enroll at UMUC. Most of our students transfer from other institutions.

Another common measure of an institution’s “quality” turns on the academic achievements of its first-year students—the grade-point average that those students earned in high school, their scores on the SATs and ACTs, and the number of National Merit finalists in their ranks.

Now, without doubt, those students with high scores are more likely to succeed in college and in life. But can the institution provide the support and resources necessary for all students to succeed—including those from less privileged backgrounds or from different educational paths?

These are just a few of the reasons that we at UMUC typically decline to participate in ranking surveys (although we are listed in the College Scorecard). We believe that a college or university should be measured by learning outcomes—what students learn and truly master, and whether they can apply it in the workplace.

To date, no widely agreed-upon metric exists for assessing learning outcomes, but UMUC does post information and data that we believe are important measures that prospective students can use to compare UMUC to other universities.

Our UMUC Student Profile provides information about our student population, including long-term graduation rates, employment and salary data, cost to attend, and the results of student satisfaction surveys.

Thus, we applaud the federal government for launching the College Scorecard. While it has its limitations—such as using an outmoded metric to measure graduation rates—it includes helpful comparison information like salary after attending, cost, student financial aid, and debt upon graduation.

At UMUC, our students pay low tuition, and when they graduate, they earn more than the national average for recent college graduates—and they have fewer loans to repay.

Those figure among our measures of success, and it is time for the ratings and rankings industry to recalibrate—based on the needs of consumers—and start to measure those data points that matter to adult students.