GLOBAL: Time for rankings to reflect value-added

The academic calendar is bound by two major events: the arrival of a new class at the beginning of the academic year and graduation of those who have completed the requisite number of courses. As I participate in these commencement ceremonies, I often wonder how each degree recipient has changed since their initial enrolment four or more years ago. Aside from exhibiting the joy of the day, externally the only indication is physical maturity.

I am unsure how their baccalaureate experience may have changed their knowledge base and proficiencies. What do they know now that they didn't at freshman orientation?

What proficiencies and dispositions have been added or changed by courses that exposed them to an array of disciplines delivered by a cadre of professors touted by their alma mater to be gifted scholars and teachers delivering a high quality post-secondary education? Has any value been added in exchange for the time, effort and treasure they and their sponsors invested?

A 2006 report by the US National Assessment of Adult Literacy revealed that American college graduates, in spite of transcripts documenting their content knowledge, were not proficient in a wide range of fundamental information processing, integration and communication skills that are requisite for post-baccalaureate success.

Other reports document the divide between the academy's narcissism in the requisite curriculum and post-baccalaureate reality. In 2004, Frank Newman reported that baccalaureate graduates felt their degree "did not prepare them with the necessary skills to succeed in the workplace".

The New York Times has reported that the average literacy (prose, document and quantitative) level of college educated Americans declined significantly from 1992 to 2003 as only 31% of the graduates demonstrated high proficiency. With 53% scoring at the intermediate, 14% at the basic and 3% below the basic level, one can legitimately question why students and their sponsors are paying more and receiving less each year.

In aggregate, these studies reveal that college graduates, in spite of transcripts documenting their content knowledge, are not proficient in a wide range of fundamental information processing, integration and communication skills that propel career success and lifelong learning.

As the curriculum is presently designed, the transcript cannot report what the graduate can do, only what s/he may have learned, not mastered, during the baccalaureate experience.

As tuition and fees have gone up, value-added appears to have declined. If graduates leave with significant deficits in these enabling or core employability and lifelong learning skills, what can be said of the value of the content knowledge recorded on their transcripts? Their baccalaureate experience has failed them.

After decades of increasing tuition and accompanying debt, parents and students are starting to search for objective links between tuition and value-added.

The popular ranking systems provide some comparative information in choosing a college or university. These annual publications boost newsstand sales and website visits. The most well-known are Shanghai Jiao Tong, Times, QS and US News and World Report.

They tend to rely heavily on similar mixes of indirect measures - research productivity and collegial reputation serve as proxies of institutional rather than instructional quality. This mix tends to favour large, well-funded research and small, expensive liberal arts institutions.

Presumably, if you start with quality ingredients the product will be superior.

I posit that reliance on these institutional indicators has a parallel in the kitchen. Starting with the highest quality ingredients does not guarantee that the cake will be edible. How they are blended and prepared at each step of the process will ultimately determine the quality of the product. Graduates are the primary product of most institutions.

While many tertiary institutions may embrace a research ethic, their core mission is instruction. Thus, their underlying institutional quality is ignored by these high-profile ranking systems.

I suggest that most of these institutions should shift their focus to measures that suggest the quality of their graduates. What value has been added by their curriculum? I don't believe that all teaching institutions, just as research institutions, are the same.

Providing relevant output data will boost their profiles with parents and students searching for a return on their investment. Those institutions publishing proxies reflecting what value they add should break out of the pack.

The teaching institutions that do add value will never raise their profiles, unless they publicly document a fair exchange of value. Publishing value-added proxy data will not be for faint of heart institutions, as many US institutions readily publish their six-year graduation rates.

I suspect that parents and students anticipating a significant post-graduation debt burden would like to compare five- and four-year graduation rates, average debt burden, and time to first job or admission to graduate or professional school. They might also like to see the SATs Major Field Examination results and how they compare with the average.

How about graduate and employer satisfaction surveys say six or 12 months out? These and other data points could help those seeking to make an informed decision based on more relevant proxies of value-added.

Reporting these more informative measures will provide consumers with a more relevant picture of cost versus value received. The confident institutions with value received in return for tuition dollars should enjoy a marketing advantage.

The ones that don't will be sending a negative signal to prospective students and their parents. They will have to get on board or they will drown in the long run. The market will eventually force the timid to follow the few brave institutions.

* William Patrick Leonard is vice-dean at SolBridge International School of Business, Daejeon, in the Republic of Korea.