By Daniel Greenstein
Twenty years from now, higher education will look very different. Our most creative leaders are running toward this future with passion, energy, and an inspiring taste for innovation and transformation.
They see a future in which colleges and universities act as engines of our nation's social mobility and economic competitiveness, while continuing their critical role preparing graduates to contribute effectively to our civil society.
Their cause is urgent. Why? Because nearly 40 percent of students who start at a four-year college won't earn a degree in six years. The proportion of graduates is far worse for those entering two-year colleges. Low-income and first-generation students fare the worst, as do underrepresented minorities.
Those who do complete a college degree increasingly carry significant debt, even as employer surveys and international comparisons suggest they lack certain skills. The trends are exacerbated by a steep drop in government funding for higher education and increased costs. Parents and students are questioning whether college is "worth it."
Those leaders are convinced of the vital role that measuring plays in getting us to that future. That's right, measuring - how effectively colleges and universities are educating and bestowing meaningful credentials upon their students. Measuring provides information that helps students and families make good choices, governments craft smart policies, and colleges and universities better understand what works for their students.
The topic is hotly debated, but there is growing agreement on the need to be more transparent about school performance and student learning. I see progress in the hundreds of discussions I have had in the past 18 months with system and university leaders and faculty, even in the press.
Measurement isn't new in higher education. We're just not always measuring the right things, focusing far more on inputs and less on outcomes. For example, even the measure of graduation rates is obsolete because it only applies to students who follow a very direct path. Today, nearly three out of four students aren't enrolled in a full-time, four-year degree program. They are accumulating credits across multiple institutions, while balancing jobs, family, and other priorities.
A new approach to measurement will be difficult. Students are diverse and have a variety of goals. Institutions have different missions and serve a wide array of students. Measuring all this is complex, but it's necessary. It's also possible.
How do we proceed? First, measurement must be transparent. Far too often, higher-ed institutions don't share information about their performance with the students and the taxpayers who support them, or the employers they rely on to hire their graduates. In the interest of consumer protection, higher education, as an increasingly high-cost and still heavily subsidized public good, must be willing to report its performance publicly.
Next, measure multiple outcomes, not just the number of students who complete college. Measure what students learn and the jobs they get upon graduation. Of course, while measuring, guard against giving colleges incentives to be more exclusive - as a way to improve their completion numbers. Closing doors to the students who need college most is not in society's interest.
Measurement also must be universal and applied commonly to all types of higher-ed institutions. That will help us celebrate the great diversity of our schools and their students and allow for context, particularly when making comparisons.
Some promising efforts are underway by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council for Aid to Education. A group of higher education associations has converged around an alternative to calculating graduation rates. A subset of associations is working on how to measure post-college outcomes for students. A project called Context for Success has scholars and policymakers studying differences in college "inputs" like students and financial resources. All of these efforts touch on part of what's needed. Unfortunately, none of them encompasses all of what's needed.
To do this right, everyone has to be at the table: policymakers, institutional leaders, employers, students, and faculty, who can help decide what conclusions can be drawn from the data generated.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's role is to support those who are engaged in the development and use of measures that support improvement. And because we believe that higher education is a public, not just private, good, we advocate for greater transparency and public accountability for those measurements.
As part of our strategy for improving postsecondary education in America, we urge higher education to embrace better measurement and its potential to make college more meaningful, flexible, and innovative - and a better value for our students and families.