Inputs and Outcomes

Interesting article in the current¬†Chronicle of Higher Education¬†(may be behind a paywall) about the appropriate point of emphasis concerning college and university students. Written from the point of view of a faculty member (and Director of a Center for Teaching Excellence) at a small, private college (so a somewhat different scope and mission than at my university, William Paterson), this article asks a basic question (OK more than one question, but let’s start with one): Why do colleges and universities place more emphasis on the educational quality of an incoming class of new students than on the educational quality of a graduating class of students whom they have taught?

The author of the article, James M. Lang (more of a brief essay than a longer, more researched and supported article), notes some of the usual suspects for this emphasis: Rating schemes that prioritize incoming student test scores and GPAs and application to acceptance ratios; need for high retention and graduation rates that more qualified students generally bring; desires on the part of a college or university to be able to proclaim and market itself as select or exclusive (therefore helping to perpetuate the cycle); and faculty desires to have smart students in their classes.

So what’s wrong with that (and this is granting, for now, the validity of the claims made in this article–which, as noted, is not filled with evidence)?

Lang, borrowing heavily from the work of educational researcher Alexander Astin, notes a few possible problems with this approach.

First is the problem of “acquire” versus “develop.” An emphasis on bringing in the most educationally prepared (and only the most educationally prepared) students shifts the focus of a college and university away from helping students grow and develop through teaching and learning. What is the purpose of a college or university if it is not to help students grow and develop and learn?

But don’t really smart and qualified students need the same chance to grow and learn? Sure–but how much help do they need as opposed to students who did not score at the top of the charts on the SAT or ACT (and check the correlation between test scores and socioeconomic indicators before you make the meritocracy claim)? Don’t we (especially public universities) have a responsibility to those students who did not have all the benefits that result in high test scores and GPAs? Lang argues, a la Astin, that the education of that group of students is even more important.

Additionally, as noted above, the emphasis on acquire rather than develop helps perpetuate a cycle of inequality in educational aspirations (and most likely outcomes). The best prepared students keep going to the most selective institutions, which become more and more selective, garnering more and better prepared students. A dualistic educational system becomes more rigid, and students are tracked from the start of their education–prepped in High School, supported by the select colleges and universities, and then launched into careers and professions open primarily to graduates from those select institutions.

As a society, we are becoming more aware of some of the structural inequalities built into our systems. As educators, especially as educators at a public university whose stated values include a commitment to diversity and the preparation of citizens, we need to keep in mind that education remains one of the more powerful tools for social mobility and mitigation of structural inequalities—unless it is a system that perpetuates those structures.