Rankings, Relevance and the Future of the Regional Public University

The New York Times ran an interesting article today about the proliferation of college rankings and the increasing importance of outcomes–especially post-graduation employment and starting salary–in these rankings.

But first a tangent and semi-rant: Do you ever read the Higher Education supplement (Education Life I believe it is called) that the NYT runs about once a month or so? Do you ever get the same feeling I get? That according to the articles (and ads) in the Higher Education supplement, higher education in America is pretty much the sole province of prestigious private liberal arts colleges or massive R-1 universities? That students going to college are all 18-22 years old, and all are planning to be residential full-time students. That the biggest struggle students face is which paid internship they are going to take next or whether they should stay at Harvard or drop out and develop their start-up? The lead article in the last edition: Finals clubs for the rich and privileged.

OK–so a little resentment at the establishment. I am from the Midwest–flyover country–so it’s permitted.

There is, however, more than resentment here–what readers get is a very selective view of what higher education is like today, and this very selective view is the one that resonates with the audience for the NYT (still considered ┬áthe unofficial newspaper of record for the US, and still the publication that probably is most read (or at least followed) by the powerful in political and business circles), and then the view that helps shape what we think about when we think about higher education. Comm scholar geek break here: Reminder of what agenda setting theory tells us – mediated messages don’t tell us what to think, but they do tell us what to think about.

So what does that have to do with us? Back to the NYT article on rankings, with a little side-trip to a past Chronicle of Higher Education article on the future of the regional public university.

The rankings game–though admittedly still trying to improve–uses metrics and measurements that privilege the full-time student at the full-time school: Four year graduation rates, and initial salaries upon graduation. The part-time student (the second degree student, the transfer student, the returning adult student, the working two jobs to afford school and help out the family student) is largely invisible or, based on the metrics, a drag on rankings.

But that student is also more the representative of the future of the public regional university. We are where students come for a great education–even if they aren’t 18 years old, only attending school and living on campus. Regional public universities are just that–we serve our public, and that means we serve the students in our geographical areas even if their life circumstances may make it more likely that rankings based on a traditional stereotype of the college student mean we will not be as highly ranked as we should be.

With all of the attention being paid to higher education nationally and locally (you should all be watching closely what is happening in Trenton with a series of bills about higher education in New Jersey), how we are covered in the media and how the rankings promote one vision of higher education matters. Perception shapes reality, and the perception right now is that public higher education is not as strong as it should be. We need to be fighting for the future of the regional public university.

The Imperfect Importance of “Finish in 4”

My university, William Paterson, struggles with a problem shared by many public state universities, especially those that serve a student population strong on first generation students, whose economic situation requires that they work a great many hours while attending school, and who may need additional developmental education to succeed in college courses.

Our problem? We want (and need to a large extent) our students to take full course loads (15 credits each semester), take these 15 credits every semester for 8 semesters, and then graduate with 120 credits and their degree in four years. We also need to balance this desire (and necessity) with the needs of our students to self-fund much of their education (and possibly also contribute to family expenses) and to meet family and other needs while going to school.

A problem.

First, a reminder why we as a university want and need students to finish in 4:

  • The longer a student stays in school, the greater the likelihood that student doesn’t ever finish
  • Each year in school is another year of paying tuition, taking out more loans and delaying the move from student to full-time employment–reducing a student’s overall financial health for years
  • State and federal governments are continuing to increase the pressure on all schools–but especially public schools–to improve their graduation rates
  • Publications that rate and rank schools weigh four-year graduation rates in their calculations
  • Parents and students look at the our-year graduation rate in making decisions about which schools to attend

In one sense, this is (or appears to be) an easy decision: Economically (at least in the long-term) and personally, finishing a bachelor’s degree in four years is the best route. The benefits are clear.

Of course it is not that simple. Students (always but more so as the share of educational cost covered by tuition continues to ┬árise) look not only at the long term but at the short-term and immediate needs. Finish in 4 sometimes looks more difficult when it conflicts with pay the rent by Tuesday. Students also, as they always have, sometimes change their minds–one may start out with a plan to become the world’s greatest accountant only to discover that graphic design is really where their heart and mind is. Students sometimes just really want to learn more–and that’s hard to resist as a teacher.

And life just gets in the way from time to time.

So back to the title: The Imperfect Importance of Finish in 4. Even with all the caveats above, completion of the bachelor’s degree in four years is extremely important. It is vital, therefore, that universities do all they can do to make this possible. We may not be able to resolve a crisis in a family and our financial aid support probably can’t cover all the expenses for every student.

But we can identify and eliminate needless barriers to timely completion. We can provide academic advising so that students can select the major that they really want to complete. We can provide academic support so that students can learn and succeed in their classes. We can set our course schedules and craft our curriculum so that students can get the courses they need in a sequence that makes sense and at times that work best for students–nor just for university employees.

Imperfect? Yes. But still vitally important.