Last week, Sarah MacDonald in our office (who, by the way, is also a great ghost writer for me) shared with me John Bassett’s piece, An Alternative to Graduation Rates: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2011/04/01/bassett_essay_on_improving_federal_measures_of_college_student_success.
Bassett raises a number of issues about certain measures higher education uses to determine our effectiveness. In particular he examines the measure of time to degree completion. In an earlier blog I suggested that we need new measures of success for our adult students (https://shaeffersforays.wordpress.com/2010/11/10/how-do-we-measure-success/) beyond the goal of time to completion. Those of us who are responsible for adult degree programs work with students who may have stopped out for a variety reasons and are returning to college after the kids are grown or in the need to solidify their current job or look for a new job.
From my perspective, using time to degree completion is incongruent with initiatives aimed at making our states and our country more competitive by increasing the number of citizens with degrees. For example, President Obama’s initiative of restoring America’s leadership in higher education, and our own state initiatives such as Virginia’s Grow By Degrees that will increase the number of working-age Virginia’s holding college degrees beyond 50%, approximately 100,000 more citizens with degrees.
I support these goals, and our unit as well as hundreds of other Outreach and Engagement units offer off-campus degree programs specifically targeted to working adult students, many of whom will take much longer than six years to complete. Time to degree completion is simply not the appropriate measure for these students. What is the appropriate measure?
Last week we had our senior presentation night for our Adult Degree Program. This is one of my favorite events because our graduating seniors present their capstone projects, and they often bring along spouses, children, friends, and family members to celebrate the culmination of all their hard work at this event.
I had the pleasure to listen to three of these presentations, and what struck me is that the capstone chosen by each student directly related to the student’s everyday work life. One student described a new process in which he worked with one of our faculty to increase efficiency and effectiveness in a manufacturing process at his company. Last week he not only explained the process but also how it had been implemented and how it has already positively impacted the production process.
Another student shared with us work he had done with his advisor in developing a business plan for launching a company which had been a lifelong dream of his. Based on his project and the work with our faculty member, he and his wife are preparing to invest over six figures of their savings to launch this new company next year.
Certainly time to degree does not measure these successes; as a matter of fact, these types of students have a negative impact on the time to degree measures, given that they can sometimes take many years to complete their degrees.
Yet I believe these students are hitting the sweet spot of the president’s and Grow by Degree initiatives. We are banking on the idea that as we increase the number of citizens with degrees we will be more competitive, and by increasing our competitiveness we will enhance the economy. The adult students we serve, while being incongruent with the measure to time to completion, are serving as the economic stimulus we hoped for by using what they’ve learned in their degree programs to launch new businesses and improve existing business practices.
Our challenge, our obligation, is to provide leadership in finding and advocating for measures that not only better tell the story of our adult degree program graduates, but that also clearly show why our institutions and our state and national government should be supportive of these students and their efforts, and find ways to measure their incredible successes and hard work.