How can an employer judge what a job applicant’s college degree is worth?
How, for that matter, can the college itself tell how good its educational programs are, and how to improve them?
The public colleges and universities of Massachusetts, which received mixed grades for job preparation on a recent employer survey co-sponsored by AIM, are working to answer those questions.
It's an undertaking of vital importance to the economic future of the commonwealth, Higher Education Commissioner Richard M. Freeland (right) told AIM’s Public Affairs Council last Friday, because by 2020 some 72 percent of jobs in the state will require a college education, and the public system has become the dominant source resident graduates.
Massachusetts has undertaken an ambitious effort to measure what college students have learned and what they can do. The idea is to apply those measurements across institutions and states to compare the effectiveness of college programs, and eventually of individual instructors.
Unlike the input-heavy accreditation process, or exit exams for basic academic skills, the new approach will evaluate actual student coursework. After being tested last year on six Massachusetts campuses, the model is being extended to nine other states, with backing from major national education organizations. Such an assessment and accountability system will be especially valuable for institutions that cannot be judged by admissions numbers or research grants.
The initiative is part of the Board of Higher Education’s Vision Project, intended to move Massachusetts public higher education to a position of leadership among state systems in seven areas: college participation, college completion, student learning, workforce alignment, preparing citizens, research, and closing achievement gaps.
Presenting the project's year-two report, "Within Our Sights," Freeland was candid about how far the public higher education system has to go, but also noted areas of continuing success in the areas of participation and research. Partial restoration in the Fiscal Year 2014 state budget of overall system funding, which suffered severe cuts during the fiscal crisis (to the extent that, for example, 80 percent of community college courses are currently taught by adjunct faculty, to the detriment of student support and advising) is important in itself, and includes a key initiative to base community college funding more heavily on performance. A pilot project at Bridgewater State University demonstrated that intensive support services can close achievement gaps between students of differing backgrounds.
AIM member-employers are deeply concerned with the preparation of the state's future workforce – and with their own ability to assess that preparation. As taxpayers, we all want to see state resources used effectively and efficiently. As citizens (and parents) we value education and the opportunity it brings. We commend the constructive candor of the Board of Higher Education, and the efforts of the commissioner working with campus administrators and faculty to move the system forward.
AIM looks forward to reporting to employers on the progress of the measurement initiative.