Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Scoreboard v. The Intangibles: On The Idea of a College Scorecard

After originally being unable to engage in the State of the Union address last night (I was packing during the beginning, but listened as I placed my life into boxes and bags), I hopped online in time to see many skeptical and concerned eyes turn toward Obama's College Scorecard initiative. Of the responses to it, Cindy Kane's stood out to me, and I immediately responded:

Will we be involved in these talks?

When looking into the topic further, I discovered that the College Scorecard, like the scoreboard at any sporting event, covers the more easily measured statistics of a college education: tuition, job placement rate, average loan repayment amount, and earning potential of its graduates. All good things to measure, but these metrics vary little from what is provided to ranking systems already in place like US and World News Report, The Princeton Review, or other agencies who have a longstanding reputation for ranking such things. But what all of these ranking systems overlook is what I referred to in a later tweet as the "intangibles". Student affairs, in so many ways, embodies those intangibles that supplement the elements of the stats that are simple to publish. 

I recognize that, as an assessment professional, that seems like an odd thing to say. And I don't say it to diminish the need for assessment in our work. I think that we should have a way to measure our successes, and to have reference points by which to improve upon our current methods. But (controversial statement ahead) is that why we have assessment professionals? Chris Conzen, in typical mentor fashion, made a great point about our field in relation to (or as we sometimes treat it, measured against) academic affairs and operations:

This one got some wheels turning.
I use the word "against" intentionally. Despite efforts to integrate the two sides (think Remember the Titans-style combination of two schools), there is difficulty in working together. But unlike the eventually undefeated Titans, the problem with combination wasn't (entirely) a matter of personality. Assessment has, in some circles, transformed from an essential function within our department to a way to prove the value of our work to those who don't do it. I believe in its value as a way to help us improve our own practices, but I have more trouble when it is done to say ", look! Our work is important too!" We know that the work we do makes a difference, and have been given an inferiority complex about its occasional immeasurability by outside constituents.

But this post isn't designed to talk me out of a job. Rather, it's a call for (or maybe at this point, just a hope for) a valuing of the work that we do. At one point, Joe Sabado brought it to a question that, for me, could merit a whole separate entryis the purpose of higher education to encourage learning for its own sake, or to get its graduates jobs? I am admittedly unprepared to answer that question right now. But what I will say is that our work, when done well, does both those things. "Our work" in this context includes the work of both student affairs and academic affairs. Students who are well prepared with both a broad base of knowledge that can be gained in the classroom, and the practical application of that knowledge in venues for student engagement, could be unstoppable. I truly believe that. And so do the future employers of our students, who are demanding with increasing frequency graduates with critical thinking skills, the ability to work well in teams, and an understanding of how to apply knowledge to "real-world" situations. All of those things can be learned in student affairs settings, we've all seen it from our best and most involved students.

Stats AND intangibles got Luck to the #1 spot.
To return to the title of this post, the best analogy that I can think of for this concept is draft reports used to select players in drafts. When NFL teams examine draft prospects, of course their statistics from their prior years of play as well as the draft combine factor into their decisions. But there are other factors- things like attitude in the locker room and on the field, ability to play in a system, and general spirit- that figure prominently into a team's decision to select or pass on a player. If those latter things weren't of consequence, players with poor reputations or mired in scandal wouldn't fall in the draft rounds as they sometimes do. Both the stats and intangibles make a difference when finding a player's fit. But the catch is, few behave as though the intangibles don't matter. Student affairs shouldn't either. Our work matters in the final "selection" of our students. And once we start valuing our role in it, perhaps other entities (including the government!) will too.

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