11 February, 2011

Great Matriculations

In 1999 I was invited to address the University Forum on Quality in Higher Education at the University of Virginia. I recently re-read my paper and thought that it still had something to offer. What follows is a slightly edited version of my remarks, but it is still longer than my usual post. Bear with me. Please note it does contain unreferenced passages, and where time frames are indicated, please add 12 years.

This is a pleasure. As a Virginia alumnus of some 29 years and as a parent of a first year student, it was very rewarding to be asked to speak on today’s issue of quality in higher education – a parent’s perspective.

I must confess that preparing these remarks was more difficult than I thought it would be. I was asked to give the parent’s perspective on what represents or determines quality in higher education. As a parent, of course, I should have clear opinions.

But I have also been a professor for 24 years and an academic vice-president and dean for nearly a dozen. I found it very difficult to separate what I thought as a parent and what I hoped other parents thought from what I knew as a professional in higher education.

As any self-respecting academic would, my first thought was to go to the research, to the journals. Surely, I thought, there was a rich literature on parental opinions about quality. No, there isn’t. It’s pretty slim pickings. So I thought I’d browse the internet where scholarly rules aren’t quite as rigid and advice is free. Nope, still very little.

As a last resort, I thought I’d collect my own data. I’d survey everyone who came in my office. I had plenty of colleagues who were parents and who had sent children off to college. I received lots of interesting ideas, but, of course, my colleagues were all higher education professionals with ideas that were perhaps a little too insider-ish.

Then serendipity struck, as it often does in research. Last week my college held an open house for prospective students, and I had the opportunity to query nearly 400 parents and students – or at least as many as I could that day.

So, I finally had something to report – and lots of it. I called my daughter to confirm how much time I had. She told me I started at 11:30 and I could speak as long as I wanted, but everyone else would be leaving 20 minutes after I began to go to lunch. So, I guess I have 20 minutes, but I don’t think I’ll need all of it.
The parents with whom I spoke were very insightful. Basically they told me that quality was determined by a college’s or university’s ability to deliver expected benefits. Those weren’t their words, but that’s my distillation of them.

Many parents did add a kicker: Quality was a college’s or university’s ability to deliver expected benefits ... at an acceptable price. So clearly quality was being related somehow to value – at least when they were attempting to choose among different schools. They wanted quality but knew there were limits to how much quality they could afford.

These expected benefits are many but can be grouped into three categories.

First and foremost are the educational or academic benefits. This is just as it sounds and means the development of intellectual capacity, critical thinking and communication skills, and a knowledge base with depth and breadth. It includes the development of values, attitudes, and self-image as well as sensitivity to diversity and an understanding of the strength arising from diversity and, of course, refinement and development of personal interests.

Secondly, there are the personal or non-academic benefits which revolve around the extracurricular life of an institution: athletics, social life, politics and activities, or perhaps making peer contacts that may later pay dividends.

Lastly, there are what one colleague has called the fringe benefits. These are post-college outcomes that are not really due to the student’s development itself. They’re due to a cachet the college offers, the power of the credential. Just having a degree from a university as distinguished as UVa or Stanford or Harvard or Michigan will by itself open a few doors that might not otherwise be opened. This is very hard to measure, but it is clearly an expectation at some schools.

The parents with whom I spoke didn’t mention all of these. They mentioned many of them, however, and it was clear that they that were interested in these benefits. They were interested, in a word, in outcomes. That was how they measured quality.

They were disappointed that outcome was such a hard thing to learn about. Mostly they heard about promises of outcomes, but minimal data were offered to support those promises.

They were, of course, impressed by reputation. It was usually the first thing mentioned as a measure of quality, but they were sophisticated enough to understand that reputation – at least as it’s currently bandied about by the ratings press (US News & World Report, Princeton Review, Peterson’s, etc.) – is determined mostly by input measures. They wanted something else. They wanted proof.

They are sophisticated shoppers. They knew what all the so-called “important” measures were, and they knew there was, perhaps, some correlation between the inputs and the outcomes. What are the input measures: endowment per student, campus beauty, faculty-student ratios, % of faculty with PhDs, and the major one – selectivity or how many students are denied admission. It seems the more selective a school is, the higher the perceived quality.

Some were sharp enough to focus on retention – how many students stay at the school. At a college like mine the national averages suggest that just over 1/5 leave after one year.

A few were even savvy enough, or perhaps cynical enough, to know that schools played the reputation or ratings game. Very close to my home there are two nationally ranked liberal arts colleges – both in the top 15 in the country. One of those schools has a staff member – a full-time staff member – whose primary responsibility is tracking those indicators that go into the rankings. They want to keep themselves rated highly – presumably by being selective with reported data or investing in those things the raters say are important.

These parents understood that many of those measures are significant – that they are generally important indicators, but they felt that the quality a school should be measured more by the kind of student it graduates or turns out rather than by the kind of student it keeps out.

Granted, my sample may be biased. These are parents of prospective students visiting a fairly young liberal arts college of about 1700 students with an average regional reputation and with only a moderately difficult admissions standard, but I think their perceptions will resonate with most parents. They are certainly more typical of the average American college parent than the parent of a student at UVa.

They’re concerned about learning, and the typical student at UVa would learn regardless of the resources the ratings think important made available to them. They want to measure quality by looking at how much value has been added by the college or university – what the education professionals call talent development.

They thought that colleges and universities should be student-centered. Above all else, they wanted the focus to be on undergraduate teaching and learning. Some were surprised and some weren’t when I told them that the American university usually thought of as #1 is frequently criticized for its poor teaching and is finally trying to do something about it.

Since outcome measures are still difficult to come by – in spite of nationwide initiatives on outcome assessment, I asked these parents what input measures they considered the most important – the ones they thought would foster the student development they wanted to see.

The emphasis was always on availability.

They wanted to know first about professors' availability: were the classes taught by full-time faculty – not adjuncts or teaching assistants; were the professors available for outside of class interaction; were the class sizes small; and what was the teaching style. They preferred interactive discussion or anything that fosters active learning.

They also wanted good availability of supporting resources – extended library hours, computer access, tutoring (peer or otherwise). In both cases of availability the focus is on teaching and learning. They were less concerned with the number of volumes in the library or how many faculty had doctorates as long as they were good teachers.

As I reflected back on what I had heard, it occurred to me that what they wanted was very similar to something I’d read on academic excellence when I first became a dean. I’ve added a few points of my own to those.

Parents want a university:

Where the core mission is talent development and where the core mission is student learning;

Where the entire academic community is united in working toward that goal;

Where teaching and advising are given high priority;

Where the university has a system that rewards effective teaching first and foremost – conspicuous success in teaching. Learning, not teaching was important for there is no teaching without learning;

Where the best students are encouraged to become teachers;

Where there are no faculty “stars” who have been lured to campus with low or even no teaching loads;

Where faculty research - and please don’t think I’m diminishing the value of research - is used as a tool to enhance the teacher/learner process – students are involved in that research;

Where students are exposed to an environment in which the values of education and service to others take precedence over the values of acquiring resources for the school and improving the status of the school.

A university that does all those things and does them well is a university that is student-centered, it is a university that adds significant value to whatever abilities or talents a student brings into the university, and it is a university that parents will consider to be of high quality.

It doesn’t have to have the largest endowment, the latest toys, or the biggest stars. It has to stress and foster student learning. Any parent will tell you that those that do it best have the highest quality.

April, 1999