One day in the not-too-distant future, some courageous private American university is going to show the world exactly what its students know, and what they know how to do.
This school – let’s call it Ollie University – is going to undertake a heroic, long-term effort to prove its claims about its education. It is going to answer those who doubt that the liberal arts provide any solid basis for future achievement. It is going to answer those who question the value of higher education, in an era of $50,000 tuitions. It is going to respond to graduate schools and employers, who say that they can learn little from private college transcripts where everyone seems to be above average.
For many years, Ollie has asserted to everyone who will listen that it does provide value. Its students, Ollie says, can think well, write well, and analyze complex problems. They aren’t trained in narrow technical fields. They have skills that are transferable from field to field and will serve them well their whole lives. Those skills are enormously difficult to measure, but Ollie is sure – really sure! – that its students are acquiring them.
But on this day in the not-too-distant future, Ollie will decide that there is a better way than simply asserting that its education is first-rate. Over a long period of time, and with a great deal of effort, Ollie will take up the challenge of actually demonstrating in a comprehensive way how well its students can write, think critically, analyze data, cultivate the imagination, and bring to bear multiple disciplines and perspectives on complex problems. Indeed, it may go even further, and seek innovative ways to assess how successfully it moves students to become global citizens, or to embody qualities it trumpets like social justice, moral courage, and the ability to work successfully in a team environment.
In taking up this challenge, Ollie will be taking some big risks. After all, it is enormously difficult to assess the outcomes of a liberal arts education, and Ollie will have to take the chance that enormously difficult does not mean impossible. But there is the risk that it will prove to be so difficult that Ollie’s best efforts can’t handle it.
There is the risk of being out in front of the pack. Many American universities have gone in the other direction – assessing their students less and less. So there is the risk that students won’t necessarily like the idea that Ollie is going to assess their work in a rigorous way.
There is also the risk that it’s going to hard to get everyone on board with a big effort like this. Some faculty members will find this prospect exciting, while others will see it as an existential threat to their independence and to the integrity of their institution.
And who knows, the doubters may be right. A big effort like this, done badly, runs the risk of doing more harm than good, especially if it is done on the cheap and if it doesn’t respect the diversity and creativity of methods that the best faculty members bring to their trade.
These risks are real. And that’s why when Ollie moves forward in full knowledge of those risks, it will be doing something bold.
How will Ollie do this? I don’t know exactly. I know that it will not be a series of multiple-choice exams. Perhaps it will be some version of a portfolio process that has been used successfully for qualitative assessment in many educational institutions. In any case, I can’t know the exact process now, because developing a good set of assessment tools will be a community project that will engage the best ideas from Ollie’s faculty members first and foremost, but also from its students, its alumni, and other strong thinkers. It’s a project that needs to be undertaken with a deep consideration of Ollie’s goals and values. And the process itself will be a creative, dynamic, stimulating collaboration for all of Ollie’s extended community.
When Ollie overcomes these obstacles and does this right, a lot of good things are going to happen. Ollie will be saluted as a leader in higher education, and it will have a huge advantage in the “marketplace.” Potential students and parents will flock to Ollie, because it (far ahead of other American colleges and universities) will be able to show them what they are getting for their $250,000. Ollie’s graduates will have greater success in the job market, because the university will be able to show potential employers what tangible skills its graduates will bring to the workplace. And Ollie will raise a lot more money, because it will be able to make a powerful and specific case about its excellence to donors and potential donors.
But these positive developments, wonderful though they may be, are not the best thing that is going to happen to Ollie as a result of this effort. The best thing that is going to happen to Ollie is this: its teaching and learning are going to get even better. Once Ollie really pays close attention to what its students know and know how to do, it will have an invigorating effect on what and how Ollie teaches. After all, good teaching and good assessment go hand-in-hand. As its faculty members and leadership learn more about students’ capabilities, they will learn more about their own strengths and weaknesses. Ollie will develop innovative new pedagogies to match the dynamic sense of discovery that it wants to inspire in its students.
With this powerful assessment process, Ollie will also be perfectly placed to respond to other massive developments in higher education. It will be prepared to incorporate on-line learning into its framework, because it will have the tools to assess how effectively students learn in various formats. It will have the nimbleness to foster flexible and individualized approaches to learning, because the outcomes will be clear and visible. And it will have a firm foundation for how its liberal arts methods succeed in a world where “the practical” often has the upper hand.
Eventually, other institutions will try to replicate Ollie’s efforts. Its success will be contagious. Besides, American universities are going to come under increasing pressure from politicians, parents, and the public to prove their mettle. Lots of schools will benefit by these efforts.
But Ollie, by being first and making this a hallmark of the institution, will be the institution that benefits the most, because it will be the recognized leader. Everyone else will be playing catch-up. The investment will be significant, but the payoff will be substantial – and measurable!
Not every institution of higher education is well-positioned to do this right. The personalized approach required will mean that Ollie will be on a relatively small scale – with fewer than 1000 graduates per year. It will be a school deeply committed to the liberal arts, to teaching, and to strong values. It will also work best at an institution at with a powerful research enterprise, where strong teaching and cutting-edge discovery go hand-in-hand. It will be willing to do something bold, while at the same time seeking to preserve its distinctive qualities.
Who will be like Ollie?