Tuesday, May 21, 2013


A Different Measure

What if we published the number of registered voters / voting record average for colleges?” -- Susanna Williams (@SusannaDW) on Twitter

I love this question.  
College “scorecards” are all the rage now.  Many states -- possibly soon including my own -- either are or are planning to base funding on performance scorecards.  Right now the popular measures include graduation rates, employment rates upon graduation, transfer rates, and success in addressing racial gaps in student success.  None of those is without issues, especially as currently measured, but it’s easy enough to grasp the idea behind the measure.  

What if we judged colleges based in part on voter participation rates by recent graduates?

As with any other measure, it would have to be constructed carefully to avoid gaming the system.  If we only measured voter registration rates among current students, then a college could make voter registration almost impossible to avoid.  In the absence of any other measure, that probably wouldn’t lead to much increase in student engagement in politics, so we’d defeat the purpose.  And I’d argue for weighting by student demographics, so that a college with a large low-income population that gets its students voting at, say, ten percent higher rates than their peers, would get more recognition than a college full of rich kids that doesn’t move the needle at all.  It’s about value added.

But if it were constructed to reflect, say, a few years after graduation, then we might have something.  We’d have an incentive for colleges to encourage civic engagement among students.

This is not an entirely new idea.  The term “liberal arts” is a reference to the “arts of liberty,” or the skills that free people need to function as self-determining citizens.  The idea of “rhetoric” as a necessary skill for politics goes back at least to the sophists, if not earlier.  (Modern readers will think of “sophistry” as a dark art, but it’s also the root of “sophisticated.”)  In a sense, measuring higher education by its capacity to produce engaged citizens is returning it to its roots.

But with a healthy twist.  Higher education is more inclusive than it used to be.  At this point, women outnumber men among American undergraduates, particularly at liberal arts colleges and community colleges.  (A few years ago there was a spate of stories about exclusive liberal arts colleges practicing affirmative action for male students, just so the dating pool on campus wouldn’t get too skewed.  Young women had so thoroughly outpaced young men academically that the only way to establish balance was to put a thumb on the scale.)  Racial and economic gaps remain -- in some ways, the economic gaps are widening -- but there’s an argument to be made that encouraging civic participation among the least advantaged could help reverse those trends.  Right now senior citizens vote at much higher rates than do 20 year olds, and our political priorities reflect that.  If the 20 year olds caught up, I’d expect to see political priorities shift, too.  The Great Republican Evolution on Immigration that occurred, seemingly spontaneously, last Fall showed what can happen when voting patterns shift.

Coming from a liberal arts background as I do, I always cringe when I see purely instrumentalist measures of higher ed gain currency (no pun intended).  Yes, of course, it’s important to be able to make a living.  I take that as given, and have no argument with it.  But college shouldn’t only be about that.  It should also be about preparing educated citizens to take leadership in the shared project of democracy.  

Public colleges and universities will focus, to some degree, on what their state funders tell them to.  What if their state funders told them to make sure that students paid some attention to the state?

Is voting really a signal of civic engagement? My grandmother-in-law votes but doesn't exactly think about what she is doing.

I know others who don't vote and have very valid reasons for not doing so, it is there way of protesting and using non-voting to engage people in dialog on various issues. I would contend the latter is far more important to a democracy that former.
Scorecards? I thought dashboards were the current rage...
As Dean Dad mentions, I suspect that any sort of college “scorecard” that is used as a basis for state funding, for accreditation, or for the granting of student loans could lead to a whole set of very perverse incentives. If graduation rates are used as the “scorecard”, schools might be tempted to pass underperforming students just to keep their numbers up. If the scoring system is based on employment rates, how do you measure employment? Does a student who majored in physics and who is now flipping burgers at Wendy’s count as being “employed”?

A rating system based on how many students are registered voters could lead to a system under which students are dinged if they fail to register to vote, or one in which faculty members are punished if not enough of the students in their classes register. If my promotion, my raise, or even my job are at risk if not enough of my students vote, they are surely going to vote, no matter what. Since the funding for the school might be at risk if not enough of their students vote, there might be a tendency for the administration to fake the results or to simply make up the numbers, just to keep themselves out of trouble. As Dean Dad says, a poorly-organized “scorecard” could lead to people gaming the system.

A college certainly has as a primary goal the training of students so that they can get good jobs upon graduation. But this is not their only mission. They also have the mission of educating their students so that they become contributing and participating citizens in a democracy. The encouragement and support of student civic engagement and participation is certainly a worthy goal for a college or a university. I tell my students that training in a specific skill will help you to get your first job, but that knowledge and expertise in science and liberal arts will help to get you promoted.

The denominator would need to be the number of citizens; is that information already collected? If not, you risk discouraging non-citizen enrollment by asking about people's citizenship status.

There are also implementation dangers, as ArtMathProf points out. If the dangers can be avoided, though, I do think that measuring civic engagement is valuable, and voting is probably the simplest measure of engagement we can use. I'd love to see other measures, too, but they'd probably be far more labor-intensive.
- Liz B
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