New Jersey Campus Compact Annual Conference, May 29, 2013

President Kathleen Waldron
Keynote Address
New Jersey Campus Compact Annual Conference

May 29, 2013

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.  I was asked to share my thoughts about a recently issued 2012 report from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement.  Produced by the Association of American Colleges and Universities at the invitation of the U.S. Department of Education, this report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy, calls on higher education to embrace civic learning and democratic engagement and make those an educational priority.  The 79-page report is well worth reading for its thorough analysis of why education for democratic citizenship matters and for promulgating a national call to action with specific recommendations for colleges and universities. The report concludes that “we dare not be passive about increasing our nation’s civic capacity any more than we are passive about revitalizing our economy.” It further urges that “all stakeholders in America’s future join together to become civic agents of a new promissory note at this crucible moment: to use higher education and the pathways to it as “the carrier of democratic values, ideals and processes.”

In response to the report, the national Campus Compact network produced A Praxis Brief: Campus Compact’s Response to A Crucible Moment.  It is natural that the first response came from Campus Compact, the only national higher education organization dedicated solely to campus-based civic engagement with 1,200 institutional members representing over 6 million students. A Praxis Brief condensed the findings in A Crucible Moment and then went on to recommend actions on the part of institutions seeking to develop a framework for 21st-century civic learning and democratic engagement. For those of you who are active supporters of the mission and goals of Campus Compact on your own campuses, these two documents will support your beliefs and perhaps provide a path for expanding your activities.

As I read the two documents and particularly noted that A Crucible Moment was, in effect, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, I could not help but compare it to another document just produced by the U.S. Department of Education.   It is called the College Scorecard. In the 2013 State of the Union speech, President Obama, backed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, proudly unveiled the College Scorecard as an important tool for college bound individuals. How many people have seen the College Scorecard?

It is an online program that will level the playing field so comparisons among institutions will be easy to understand and easy to find. And the Scorecard carries the clear message that how much a person will earn upon graduation in her or his first full-time job is not only important but should be used in determining the quality of the institution.

The College Scorecard can be found on the homepage of the White House. Go to www.whitehouse.gov. It is a simple-to-use online program for finding out basic information about any college or university in the United States so that a student or parents can make a comparison among institutions.  One types in the name of the institution and immediately up pops five points of information deemed by the government to be important.   First, the Scorecard reveals how much it really costs to attend the institution. Second, it provides the six-year graduation rate. Then it provides the loan default rate for students who took out federal loans to finance their education.  Then it provides how much on average each student borrowed to pay for college.  And, finally, it provides one more variable which I would like to read to you: “What kind of jobs do students have when they graduate?” I was particularly interested in the last variable so I typed in William Paterson University and here is what my government told me: “The U.S. Department of Education is working to provide information about the average earnings of former undergraduate students at William Paterson University of New Jersey who borrowed federal student loans. In the meantime, ask William Paterson University of New Jersey to tell you about how many of its graduates get jobs, what kinds of jobs they get, and how much those graduates typically earn.” So this variable is still under construction and, in the meantime, the potential student or family should ask the university for this information.

Really?  Is my government really trying to define a good university by these variables? Are these the measures our national leaders deem the most important for prospective students to use when selecting an institution?  And in the future, are we going to search IRS tax returns to obtain starting salaries of graduates and then link the data to the institutions that awarded the degrees?  Really?

When I graduated college I was unemployed for five months. I then got a job as a social worker in a foster care agency. I made $6,000 a year, not quite a living wage even then. I guess I, or my alma mater, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, would have been considered a failure. A year later I went to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in history.  My salary dropped to $2,500 a year. I guess my alma mater would have been even more of a failure. When I completed my doctorate five years later, I got a job as an assistant professor at a prestigious liberal arts college in Maine at a starting salary that did not qualify me for a credit card. My alma mater was still failing. Finally, a few years later I switched careers and got a job as a banker at $27,000 a year.  Success at last, alma mater.

In some ways, I am not surprised that our national debate about the quality of education has come down to this. As we all know, higher education in the United States—both public and private—is under increasing scrutiny since the lingering recession that began in 2008. Tuition has soared beyond inflation for the past 15 or more years. Two-thirds of graduating seniors leave with debt that averages about $27,000 per student. Unemployment or underemployment, which remains at historically high levels, has affected younger people more than other groups including college graduates. And too many national media stories about luxury residence halls, campus health clubs, and other items deemed frivolous are produced as explanations for rising educational costs.  Little mention is made that states have vastly reduced their support over the past 10 to 20 years so that today students pay 60 percent or more of the cost of their education, while in my day, students only were expected to pay 20 percent or less of the cost for that same education.

The growing lack of affordability of college and the seeming lack of accountability as to quality have attracted the attention of many people, including state politicians who are leading the dialogue to hold institutions colleges accountable for how they perform. Is it any wonder that the national government has stepped into the fray and developed its own measure of “success?”

Lest you think this is an abstract debate about definitions of quality, let us turn to the state level and review for a moment what has happened in the past couple of years. There is a rapidly growing movement called performance-based funding. It calls for state funds for higher education to be linked to how institutions perform and it defines performance in a very special way.  In Tennessee the legislature adopted a formula for linking state financial support to graduation rates and starting salaries of graduates. The higher the graduation rate and the higher the starting average salaries, the better an institution is deemed to be and the more support it will receive from the state through general appropriations. The lower the graduation rates and the lower the average starting salaries, the less financial support an institution will receive until it “fixes” its deficiencies.

For Tennessee, the information is produced by College Measures, a partnership of the American Institutes for Research and Matrix Knowledge, a consulting firm. It takes the analysis one step further and links starting salaries not only to where a person earned a degree but also to which major the student chose. Should we be surprised that students majoring in art, in music, in education, and other fields have lower salaries than students majoring in accounting, engineering, and applied health fields? Tennessee is not alone. Similar proposals are now underway in Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Texas, and Virginia.  Commercial companies such as PayScale are already publishing rankings of colleges based upon starting salaries of graduates although how they are sourcing this information remains a mystery. Watch out U.S. News and World Report, you now have some big-time competition.

But we live and work in New Jersey. So what is going on here? Earlier this year a bill was introduced by Assemblymen Cryan, Singleton, Riley, and Wagner to the State  Assembly Higher Education Committee  to develop a system for allocating  state funding to all public higher education institutions based upon degree and credit completion. Today, the State of New Jersey provides about 30 percent of the operating budgets of most public institutions in the state, including William Paterson University.  The bill calls for the Secretary of Higher Education to establish a schedule that would gradually phase in the percentage of each public institution’s state operating aid that would be affected by the performance-based funding plan, beginning in fiscal year 2015.  The bill directs the Secretary of Higher Education to work with presidents and legislators to develop this system of performance-based funding for New Jersey and allows for other measures of quality to be considered.  While it is unlikely that this particular bill will be acted upon, I am convinced that some form of performance-based funding will be under discussion in our state soon, although I have confidence in Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks to be more sophisticated in her approach to definitions of accountability and transparency.

But there is another force underway in this argument about what defines a quality education. Recent surveys of business leaders in the United States indicate that they too are unhappy with the results of graduates from institutions of higher education. However, survey results indicate that they are unhappy because they do not find enough graduates who have the qualifications they seek.  This April, the Association of American Colleges and Universities conducted a survey of employers and published the results. Entitled, “It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success,” and conducted by Hart Research Associates, the survey results indicate that these business leaders want people who demonstrate the ability to think critically; who can work in diverse teams with a diverse group of customers; who can adapt to rapid change, whether technical or structural; and who understand global trends and the rise of new economies. These leaders are less concerned with the entry-level skills of an employee and more concerned about the long-term growth potential of individuals who will, over time, take on more responsibility and larger management of parts of their companies. They ask that colleges teach flexibility, adaptability, social responsibility, critical thinking, analytic approaches to problems, good communication, both verbal and written, and teamwork. They seek individuals who are willing to take risks, who can bounce back from adversity or even a mistake. These business leaders are demanding these characteristics because they are competing in a global environment and they know that in order for their companies to be successful, they need very talented people over the long term. And they know not everything can be outsourced.

Many of you know I was an international banker for many years before returning to the academy to become a higher education administrator 15 years ago.  My 17-year banking career provided me with numerous opportunities to interview and hire people. The characteristics these business people seek today are the same characteristics that my colleagues and I sought years ago.  We did not care so much about what major a new graduate had. We did not care about where that person went to college. That might be a topic of interest for about three days and then quickly faded in to the background as assessment was made on sheer performance, not pedigree. We cared about whether the person was going to work hard, be a member of the larger community, get along with colleagues, show initiative, be resilient, be smart about solving problems, and most of all, get things done on time. Looking back on that time in my life, I am not sure I could have explained that to any college president let alone advise faculty on what to teach that would produce the graduates I sought.

I am deeply concerned, and I’m sure you are as well, about this national trend to see college as a job placement mechanism and to measure institutions of higher education based upon starting salaries and employment data of their graduates or even graduation rates which I do believe need improvement. Parents and potential students, unfortunately, have now adopted this point of view and increasingly take a return on investment approach to college. For example, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, nearly 86 percent of incoming freshmen in 2011 cited getting a job as their major reason for attending college. Many experienced professors tell me that the media attention to the salaries of graduates majoring in one subject rather than another is affecting students’ course of study and causing students to avoid disciplines that do not directly correlate to a job or career. Perhaps this was always the case, but it seems more prevalent now. And it is worrisome.

So this leads to Campus Compact, doesn’t it?  The other speakers will address some of the major points of The Crucible Moment and A Praxis Brief so I am not going to review the contents of the documents. But let me just note that the adoption of a civic and democratic mission of higher education needs to be added back into our national dialogue. Whether you view that mission as a historic one or you view it as a more critical 21st-century need does not matter. I am going to assume that because we are all gathered here today, we embrace this mission and are here to learn about how to more effectively adopt and implement the goals of the Campus Compact at our own institutions.

But we also need to think about how to insert the values of the Campus Compact into the national dialogue and emerging definitions of a quality education, or as the media portrays it, “a successful education.”  Over the past month or so, I tried to do this and had the great pleasure of engaging in several hours of conversation with three brilliant professors from William Paterson University about what we want students to learn and what alternative metric, a simple to understand, easy to measure metric, could be developed to add to the national dialogue to define a quality education. One professor is a political scientist, one is a philosopher, and the other is a sociologist.  Our conversation went in many different directions. It covered a great many ideas. We did not reach any specific conclusions but we had fun and I, for one, was stimulated by their ideas and breadth of knowledge.  I was back at university, in some ways as a student, being led and challenged by professors who have spent their lives thinking about important issues. So thank you, Professor Barbara Andrew, Professor Christine Kelly, and Professor Kathleen Korgen. I hope the dialogue will continue and I hope you will write about our discussions.

At William Paterson University, we have embraced these concepts for many years.  As an American Democracy Project campus for more than a decade, we have sought to create and foster intellectual and experiential civic engagement opportunities for our students. Through ADP activities, students have conducted voter education and registration drives, both on campus and in high schools in Paterson, to educate our young people about the important role they play in our democracy. Our student-led Youth Vote 2K12 team reaches out to students on campus, especially those in our First-Year Seminar classes, as well as to students in Paterson high schools to discuss the importance of voting, and the power they have to affect the political process. We were very proud that we registered over 1,000 new voters on campus last fall. As of 2011, as part of the University’s new Core Curriculum, all students are now required to take a three-credit course in civic engagement as a requirement for graduation.  We are proud to be the only institution among the state’s colleges and universities with such a mandate.  And the three-credit course can be from any discipline as long as it meets certain criteria. We have done much but we have much more to do.

But let me conclude by returning to the initial observation that we, as academics, must place ourselves back into the national dialogue about defining a quality education. If we agree with some of our business leaders that talented and inquisitive people are what is needed in today’s economy, how do we change the conversation, particularly among our leaders in government?  My recommendation would be that we not change the conversation but add to it. As a university president and as a former businessperson, I can see the beauty in simple metrics of evaluation. I can understand why some political leaders and people in general might latch on to evaluations based upon the percent of students who finish college in four years, or in six years, or the percent of the graduating class that get a job, or the average starting salary of graduates. U.S. News and World Report uses similar variables to evaluate MBA programs. Why not take those variables to the undergraduate level?

And I am a firm believer in not fighting a national trend but stepping into the trend and corralling the dialogue. Rather than rejecting the use of all these variables, I say keep them. But then let’s add some new measures of success or quality based upon our shared vision of why democratic citizenship matters; of why an informed electorate able to discern truth from propaganda is necessary; of why the practice of individual and collective social responsibility makes for a better and happier country. Are there metrics out there that we can develop to enlarge this rather limited national dialogue about educational quality? Could we introduce some new variables that might measure an institution’s ability to produce student outcomes of social engagement, political participation, resiliency, or even happiness? There actually is an international index of a country’s happiness level called the United Nations Human Development Index which values income, education, health, life expectancy, gender equality, and sustainability. Norway is the happiest country in the world in case you are wondering. But we also have a civic health index that might serve as a model or a resiliency scale, a characteristic increasingly indicative of student perseverance and success. 

These are just suggestions for an ongoing  conversation that could broaden the dialogue and demonstrate the value of a civic-based education. I hope this could perhaps be the beginning of a continuing conversation about what metrics we can use to make our case.  If we in the academy do not provide metrics for this conversation, they will surely be forced upon us.