Liberal Education

From the Editor

If a new college graduate lands a good job with a high salary, does that mean her college education was better than that of another new graduate who doesn’t find a job in his field right away, chooses to do something other than enter the workforce—going on to graduate school, for example—or enters a profession that pays relatively poorly? The answer depends on expectations, on the standard applied. If economic return on investment, or ROI, is the standard by which the “value” of college is judged, then the answer may appear to be yes. After all, college can be very expensive.

This issue of Liberal Education explores the larger question of the “value” of a college education and what quality means, in institutions of higher education and in terms of policymakers’ calls for accountability. Both Clifford Adelman and Carol Geary Schneider argue forcefully against the narrow ROI definition of value and quality described above. Adelman calls on the higher education community to “reject any interpretation of the outcomes of higher education in terms of future earnings” and to “demand that the US Department of Education remove the variable of future mean earnings from its ‘college scorecard.’” This demand is especially urgent because, as Schneider warns, “it is entirely possible to envision a state of affairs in which, thanks to federal policy, ROI data will displace evidence of achievement of learning outcomes entirely.”

This is not, of course, to suggest that college shouldn’t prepare students for success in their chosen careers, but rather to push back on the notion that comparisons of entry-level earnings can tell us anything meaningful about educational quality. They cannot. So how, then, is college to be evaluated? Authors in this issue argue for a focus on students’ demonstrated accomplishments in terms of clearly articulated expectations for quality learning—expectations rooted in a set of outcomes that represent what a college graduate needs to know and be able to do in order to flourish in all aspects of life, not just at work.

“The good news,” Schneider points out, “is that US higher education does have—right now—clear expectations for what counts as quality learning.” What’s more, as several years’ worth of AAC&U research clearly demonstrates, they largely match employers’ expectations for the kinds of learning needed for career success. The bad news? There is a lack of leadership from those with primary responsibility for ensuring the quality of learning: accreditors.

Debra Humphreys and Paul Gaston provide a review of the current state of the accreditation system, examine various proposals for reforming it, and point to promising opportunities for accreditors to build on the achievements of the learning outcomes movement. “The most constructive, influential, and, indeed, game-changing initiative accreditors could take on is . . . that of clarifying expectations concerning learning outcomes,” they suggest. “No undertaking lies closer to the heart of the academic mission. And none has greater potential for informing public understanding and improving student success.”

Finally, it’s worth observing that the contest between simplistic and distortional metrics, such as those of the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, on the one hand, and the consensus on what counts as quality learning that has emerged among educators and employers, on the other, is taking place in a broader context set by the potential for technology to “disrupt” higher education as it has so many other enterprises. (Think, for example, of Uber “disrupting” the taxi industry or Airbnb the hotel industry.) The advent of the virtual DIY college in which students are totally atomized, faculty are unnecessary, and learning quality is dubious may threaten to disrupt the business model of higher education and originate innovations that influence practice at traditional institutions. But it would be difficult, at best, to argue that this development is anything other than a potential disaster for quality—provided, that is, “quality” refers to the higher learning all today’s students need and deserve.—DAVID TRITELLI

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