Give students and parents more details of value added

In their 2011 book, Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reported their study of 2,300 traditional undergraduate students enrolled at an array of four-year tertiary institutions in the United States.

They found that 45% of the sample "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment – CLA – during their first two years of college. Adding to the disappointment, 36% of students sitting the CLA "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" over four years of tertiary education.

Following similar reports, it is no surprise that US consumers are baulking at ever-higher tuitions in the face of lower return on their investment.

Standard & Poor's Rating Services reports that 2015 college shoppers simultaneously want a tertiary education while opposing tuition fee increases.

Their response may well be linked to reports dating back to the birth of the century that US tertiary students are not demonstrating the expected increases in knowledge and proficiencies in relation to their tuition fees and related expenses.

This places all institutions, especially the tuition-dependent, in a difficult budgetary position. Rising costs have been the prime driver of ever-higher tuition fees in recent decades.

While the majority of US institutions need to lower their operating costs, doing so in the short-term will be most painful. Entire programmes and support services will be subject to closure with careers and families disrupted. It could take years to align revenues and costs.

Some may be able to avoid this pain.

Even in this unenviable position, some confident institutions could attract the additional students they require by tweaking their appeals to prospective applicants.

Below I suggest that, in this challenging market for students, select institutions with strong documented student performance in their classrooms may capitalise on these strengths.

Shopping around

Consumers considering very costly outlays usually amass large quantities of detailed comparative performance information on their anticipated purchase and what they can expect to receive in return for their expense. Shoppers in the US tertiary market are likely no different.

Unfortunately, US tertiary institutions tend to tenaciously focus their appeals to shoppers on input descriptions – institutional history, curriculum, faculty, amenities, activities, facilities and location.

Arguably, descriptive information has some utility to consumers in putting the institutions under consideration within a context. There are two major weaknesses with this narrow focus, however.

One is that, with most, if not all, institutions presenting similar information, there is little that differentiates them. Even more importantly, while they provide the context for student learning, they do not provide the prospective student with a proxy for the value added at their institution.

They tend not to provide shoppers with performance information on the institution’s instructional and support services. This is akin to a manufacturer describing its plant, process and staff but not the product’s capabilities.

US academics have long claimed that they know quality when they see it. Unfortunately, these insights have not been sustained by Academically Adrift’s findings and related studies.

Further, Standard & Poor’s recent report may reflect the public’s recognition that the value of a tertiary education has declined. College shoppers are left to make their decision without the performance information commonly available to shoppers in other markets.

As deceased American economist Gordon C Winston observed nearly 20 years ago, US tertiary education shoppers base their commitment to a specific institution in no small measure on trust.


This trust is tested to its extreme with generalisations describing the post-graduation outcomes – time to first job, entry and lifetime salaries, civic engagement and so forth.

Shoppers are presumed to infer from these factoids that averaged employment and salary decisions as well as quality of life assessments are proxies for the institution’s performance quality.

If the asserted outcomes accrue to the average US graduate, they will surely generalise to current shoppers. Hence the shopper must wait until after graduation, perhaps for years, to determine if these generalisations apply to her or him.

Unfortunately, this aggregated post-graduation information does not account for all of the intervening variables the individual encounters while pursuing their studies and in their post-graduation years.

What would be more useful to consumers is value-added or performance measures of knowledge and proficiency that previously enrolled students demonstrated as they pursued their degrees.

Confident tuition-dependent institutions could inexpensively inform prospective students of what they can expect in terms of an array of value-added/performance data tailored to their individual institution’s template.

Many institutions already collect value-added information for internal curriculum management purposes. Some employ measures such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, Major Field Tests, internal pre- and post-tests and other measures to manage their curricula and respond to accreditation standards.

The trust issue cannot be totally eliminated. The gap between trust and confidence could be narrowed. I suggest that institutions link their input description to post-graduation averages with performance data of their choice.

Shoppers are becoming more discerning as they judge the merits of competing institutions. By providing them with more objective data on what previous students have actually gained in the institution’s classrooms, the confident institution with the courage to honestly reveal these results will present a compelling value proposition that sets them apart from their timid peers.

The goal would be to attract prospective students with arguably more objective academic data rather than relying exclusively on input descriptions and summaries of selected post-graduate factoids.

The non-elite or ranked institution with a strong commitment to student learning is likely to have more favourable information to share than they realise. While much of this transformation may run counter to prevailing practice, the institution with data to be proud of should reap an enrolment advantage.

Institutions with high performance teaching/learning results should realise a competitive advantage. Institutions failing to provide value-added data will be sending a negative signal to prospective students and their parents.

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