Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Outcome Measures, Transparency and the Failure of Universities to Cultivate Effective Service Missions

I have written about the way in which universities, including state and state-assisted universities with public and service missions, have been shifting their focus to education programs increasingly "made to market." (e.g., Made to Market Education and Professionalization in University Education).

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

This shift has recently been the subject of an interesting essay, Zach Wenner, Selective Service, Washington Monthly (Nov/Dec 2013). 
The Washington Monthly’s annual college guide (published in the September/October issue) pulls together the public data that does exist on colleges’ commitment to promoting public service—the percentage of their students in ROTC; the number of their graduates who join the Peace Corps. But what we’d ideally like to know is the number of a school’s graduates who go on to serve their country and communities more broadly. That way, citizens could better judge which schools actually deliver on their lofty rhetoric and which don’t. (Ibid).
This is an especially important issue for public assisted institutions like those of the Committee on Institutional  Cooperation (CIC), including Penn State University.

The problem, of course, is one of transparency.  When universities have a monopoly on their data--and on the methods through which these are organized and presented, it is quite hard to assess and monitor university operations and performance.  While this is a great problem for internal governance, it is equally important for assessment by important outside stakeholders (including donors, alumni and employers).

Mr. Wenner writes:

Fortunately, the burgeoning world of social media is beginning to challenge higher education’s data monopoly. At the networking site LinkedIn, for instance, millions of Americans advertise their professional accomplishments as well as their college alma maters. Using LinkedIn data, our team at the Aspen Institute was able to measure the top fifty national universities and top twenty liberal arts colleges (as ranked by the U.S. News & World Report) by the percent of their graduates entering public service—in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and public education—over the last ten years.

The results (see chart) are surprising. Only two of U.S. News’s top ten national universities are in our top ten, and only one Ivy League school, Yale, makes the same cut—edged out by places like Brandeis, the University of Chicago, and the University of Rochester. The overlap on liberal arts colleges is a little closer: five of U.S. News’s top ten (Swarthmore, Pomona, Carleton, Wellesley, and Haverford) make our top ten. But U.S. News’s number one liberal arts college, Williams, is only number sixteen on our list. And not counting the service academies, whose graduates by definition go into public service, our top-ranking school, Grinnell, ranks just number seventeen on the U.S. News list.

So what are our top schools doing right? And what’s changed since back in the day when the Ivys were seen as stepping stones for students who wanted to go into public service or launch a career in government? One factor, perhaps, is that the most prestigious Ivy League schools are now the primary target for Wall Street recruiters—a species that was not so prevalent a few decades ago. But another factor is that the leading schools on our list didn’t get there by accident. All of them actively cultivated cultures of service on campus, and then built the financial and programmatic infrastructure to support students’ trajectories in service after graduation.

Those deliberate efforts are one of the reasons why we see such disparities in students’ career choices between schools that seem otherwise similar from the outside.

Mr. Wenner makes three suggestions:  First  he argues that universities should create a culture and tradition of service from the top down. "Colleges, like other institutions, have unique cultures, and those cultures can be shaped by the words and deeds of their leaders. At George Washington University (the number two national university on our list), President Steven Knapp has made service a “Presidential Priority,” and in the school’s recent strategic plan nearly a third of the listed objectives fell under the category of “Citizenship and Leadership.”"  (Ibid).

Second, universities ought to avoid the appearance of service oriented cultures.  "Of course, fostering a culture and tradition of service isn’t enough on its own. Colleges and universities must also provide undergraduates with opportunities to serve, both on campus and beyond, while sending a clear message that service should not end at the entry level. The colleges and universities that topped our list provided robust co-curricular community service and academic service-learning opportunities, and also supported them financially and programmatically—like with the Grinnell Corps—after graduation." (Ibid).

Lastly, Mr. Wenner suggests that universities ought to put thewir money whjere their mouths are--by underwriting service.  "It’s an unpleasant fact that choosing a career in public service often requires a willingness to make less money. That’s why many of the schools that perform well on our index use what Radhika Singh Miller, senior program manager at Equal Justice Works, calls “career kick starters”: grants for internships and postgraduate fellowships in the public interest sector."  (Ibid). 

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