Tuesday, December 13, 2005

How Do You Know a Good College When You See One?

“There are market tests for institutional performance.” – Stephen Karlson, Cold Spring Shops

Well, yes and no.

How do you measure how well a college is doing its job?

I read two thoughtful pieces today that directly conflicted on this question. One was the entry over at Cold Spring Shops, quoted above. It was a piece on the long-term need for colleges to maintain high standards so employers will continue to value the degrees they award. The other was Jim Collins’ recent article/monograph (it’s an article, but he sells it as a monograph – who says business writers aren’t sharp?), “Good to Great and the Social Sector.” There, Collins suggests that the standard measure of institutional success for businesses – money – doesn’t work for nonprofits, since that isn’t their mission. Collins instead settles on reputation as a sign of success, which strikes me as shaky. Reputation is, at best, a trailing indicator.

Neither quite seems to get it right, but I don’t have a well-thought-out alternative at hand, either.

The academic prestige hierarchy (a version of Collins’ ‘reputation’) is almost purely based on inputs, rather than outputs. Pour lots of research money and some high-SAT undergrads into a university, add a good football team, and voila! Selectivity of admissions correlates very strongly with academic prestige, regardless of what the teachers in the classrooms actually do. As a former professor of mine put it, “we don’t often turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear.” Give me a college full of valedictorians, and I’ll give you a great job placement record, even if the undergrads spend all four years majoring in beer. I’d wager any sum you please that the best community college in America has a higher attrition rate than the worst Ivy.

(Actually, that suggests a good exercise: Quick, name the five best community colleges in America! If you have no idea, you see the problem.)

Employers’ reactions – what I take to be CSS’s preferred measure – are also fickle. I saw that directly at my previous school. During the late-90's boom, we couldn’t produce graduates fast enough; one of the major drivers of attrition then was employers poaching students before they graduated! When the bubble burst, so did our placement record. The faculty did not meaningfully change in two years, but the market did.

More to the point, employers’ reactions are often based on watered-down versions of the academic prestige hierarchy anyway, laced with personal ties. It would be lovely to assume that employers keep close tabs on the outcomes assessments at the colleges and universities and hired accordingly, but most don’t. Most employers don’t have access to that kind of information (keep in mind, most employers are small, distracted, and busy). Yes, a few elite technical programs in very specific fields may command specific respect based on quality, but those are very much in the minority. Outside of that rarified stratum, one degree largely resembles another. (If that were not the case, the University of Phoenix could not have grown as quickly as it has.)

So, how do you know if a given college is ‘good’?

I have my own biases, but that’s all they are. I prefer schools that know their own mission to those that don’t; community colleges, potted Ivies, and R1's, as different as they are, at least know their missions. The Midtier States of the world often don’t. I prefer schools that don’t limit themselves demographically, but I freely concede that, say, Wellesley probably offers a better history major than Midtier State.

Others have their own biases: some swear by women’s colleges, others use football prowess as an indicator. Some prefer all-undergrad campuses, others use graduate program prominence as a proxy indicator for the quality of undergraduate teaching (a colossal mistake, imho).

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I’ve struggled with ways to improve the reputation of my own cc. It’s pretty well-respected in its community already, which is great, but there’s always room to do better. The problem is that I honestly don’t know where reputations come from.

Vox Blogosphere, Vox Dei: how do you know a good college when you see one?