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?