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Getting Really Serious about Learning Outcomes: Competency-Based Education

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There is a growing movement within higher education to seek more specific statements about learning goals of courses. Faculty are encouraged to write syllabi that describe what outcomes they seek to attain in the course. Some of these are knowledge domains (e.g., know the major battles in World War II, their sequence, and impact on the progress of the war). Some are job-related skills (e.g., be able to program in the Python language by writing effective and efficient code). Some are cognitive abilities (e.g., be able to analyze particular moral problems by applying principals of alternative ethical theories).

There is a movement afoot that places learning outcomes and assessments in a more central role within the higher education enterprise. This asks of the creators of degree programs (and courses within them) very explicit statements of the knowledge and skills they wish to impart in the course. Simultaneously, they grant flexibility in how the knowledge and skills are attained.

This is not completely new to Georgetown. For example, the School of Foreign Service has for years required their BSFS students to pass a proficiency examination for a modern language other than English. The student is free to take the proficiency examination with a variety of different course experiences. They demonstrate their competency in a language to a set of examiners to gain the certification required for the degree.

Competency-based education programs force very rigorous definitions of the assessment tools to measure mastery of a field. The route to attaining that mastery might vary among students. Some may demonstrate competency more quickly than others by absorbing the same material at a faster rate. Some may require more time to demonstrate the same level of understanding and facility with the knowledge domain. Thus, competency-based programs do not require the same “seat” time of all students.

As part of the Designing the Future(s) of the University, many are contemplating which domains might successfully use such a pedagogical approach. Success might be more easily achieved in domains where there are clear right and wrong answers. Such a field makes the construction of flexible assessment tools more feasible. Just as the GRE examination offers almost each student a different path of questions, adaptive to their answers to earlier questions, the assessment tools in competency-based programs need to have a very large number of alternative editions. This prevents the temptation merely to “study for the exam,” rather than comprehensively absorbing the field.

One can imagine that an effective way of designing such programs is to build them backwards — first define the outcomes and their assessment measurement techniques; then, design the presentation of materials and intermediate exercises to attain the requisite knowledge.

The second interesting attribute of such programs is their “business model.” Some competency-based programs are experimenting with monthly tuition, paid as long as one needs to take to demonstrate the requisite mastery. Once the assessment is successfully passed, all tuition costs stop. Certainly, such programs require new thinking on the part of universities.

Competency-based programs are one of the pump-priming ideas at Designing the Future(s) of the University: Experiments. Which areas of learning are best suited to these at Georgetown?

Flexible Curricular and Teaching Structures

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One of the pump-priming ideas forwarded as part of the Designing the Future(s) program (See: Experiments) is a call for experiments with alternative length, intensity, and structures of courses. At Georgetown, we tend to use a format of 15-week, 3 or 4-credit courses. Three-credit-hour courses tend to have 45 hours of class time and at least 90 hours of out-of-class student activity over the semester. Such classes permit time to present multiple concepts, theories, techniques, and sets of course readings. A common structure of a course begins with the introduction of new ideas and then gradually builds on that knowledge with successively more sophisticated material.

It is very important that Georgetown students experience deep, persistent study of complicated material. It is through such experience that critical thinking skills are enhanced. The proximate presentation of increasingly complicated material often leads to long-run understanding. A common design issue in a three-credit course structure is the choice of material in the later stages of the course. However, there are often scores of alternative endings of a course. The instructor can expose students to different material to solidify and extend their understanding. Indeed, some instructors change the ending of their courses over semesters, to keep it fresh. For such courses, one can easily imagine alternative short modules (1-credit) added to a base 2-credit foundation.

Introductory courses are interesting examples to consider. Some students outside the major could profit from short introductions to a field. Such a course might be delivered in five weeks. Other courses might be skill-related, offered in less than 15 weeks, and devoted to intense experience-based learning.

A completely different example of greater flexibility might be a course that is fully integrated over an entire year (maybe a 15-credit course). For example, students might be involved in an intense research-based experience that would last an entire year, from August to August, including spending a summer at Georgetown. The early experiences could give students some key research skills and the remainder of the time would involve working in research teams with undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty.

In all of these experiments, it seems proper at this moment in academic history to be very explicit about the learning goals, the desired outcomes of the experimental programs. In this way, students and faculty will be well-aligned in their expectations for the experimental programs. Assessments of these learning goals must also be carefully constructed to assure ourselves that the experimental changes are achieving their desired effects.

Through giving faculty more flexibility in how they organize their teaching, these experiments are hoping to achieve great effectiveness and efficiency in the learning offered at Georgetown.

Liberating Faculty to (Re)design Programs

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Before we started the Designing the Future(s) program at Georgetown, we engaged a task force of thoughtful faculty members to seek advice. We asked them how we could launch a set of experiments in educational programs that might interest faculty. How could we investigate new programs that rethink how education is delivered in ways that enrich the lives of students and faculty? They were blunt in advising us not to ask faculty to engage in blue sky thinking that yields such abstract outcomes that nothing would ever happen. “Give us concrete ideas and make it clear something is going to happen,” they said.

“Designing the Future(s)” differs from last year’s Initiative on Technology-Enhanced Learning (ITEL) in two important ways. ITEL was chiefly focused on individual faculty innovating inside single courses. Designing the Future(s) is focused on groups of faculty in departments/areas/programs who want to experiment with whole new programs (sets of integrated courses).

After months of talking to students, alumni, and faculty, yesterday we sent out a blast email announcing the document, “Five Pump-Priming Ideas for New Ways to Deliver a Georgetown Education and Experience.” (You can download at Experiments.) The document is our attempt to forward concrete program features from which faculty groups can build their own ideas about new programs.

The five ideas aren’t proposals. They’re attempts to stimulate faculty and staff to invent innovative programs. Some of the ideas may offer more attractive cost structures than our current programs. All of them challenge old assumptions about the boundaries of Georgetown. Can we improve what we accomplish by combining the co-curricular with the curricular in new ways? Will constructing smaller bite-sizes for educational experiences help us (challenging the 15 week, 3 credit course)? By integrating in new ways across the bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD levels, can we increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our educational programs? Why must our educational programs begin no earlier than high school graduation? Are there programs whose educational outcomes can be articulated clearly enough that we could certify eligibility for a degree based on demonstration of the knowledge instead of assemblage of a set of courses over a fixed time period?

It could be that some new programs can be built by combining various features of the five pump-priming ideas. It could be that there’s a completely different way of challenging key assumptions to the benefit of our faculty and students.

Led by Vice-Provost Randy Bass, we will be engaging in discussions with sets of faculty who are interested in taking a shot at experimental programs that challenge traditional boundaries.

We want to empower faculty to experiment with building programs with new features that reach educational excellence with new tools and that are freed of traditional constraints when they seem unnecessary.

Take a look at the document; talk to your staff and faculty colleagues; we’re open for business.


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One of the issues that is forced upon us as we imagine alternative futures of Georgetown is discerning the appropriate role of place in the university in the 21st century. Most prior conceptions of a university contain as a central feature the location, the campus, and the residential milieu that accompanies the intellectual community. Which outcomes of a university require a shared place, with face-to-face interaction?

In the Designing the Future(s) of Georgetown, Vice-Provost Bass is using a set of design events, in which alumni are asked to identify the essential ingredients of the best of what Georgetown offered them. Most of the important and memorable experiences they relate are Hilltop or Washington experiences that were shared among students or between faculty and students. Some are memorable one-on-one exchanges with faculty in the offices outside of class. Some were moments when a vision of the student’s future emerged more clearly in his or her own mind. Some alumni can relate exactly where this experience took place. The events were all face-to-face encounters.

The puzzle for all of us in hearing these stories is to try to understand which of those experiences could only take place in a face-to-face setting, without any electronic mediation. What of those formative moments can be replicated in some other ways? This question arises because there were no alternative types of conversations/interactions at Georgetown for most alumni except those that were face-to-face.

In the world of Skype, video-conferencing, FaceTime, etc., there are many two-dimensional video/audio communication options. We all have our opinions about these, but, in my opinion, the current generation of those communication tools stretch human abilities to read emotional states, to navigate who has the floor as speaker, to be content with thoughtful silence, to handle conflict, to read the other actor’s desire to end the conversation, and all sorts of other interactional burdens between humans.

It’s possible that all of this will become radically more effective and that the world ahead will produce electronically-mediated conversations that have all of the interpersonal richness of face-to-face conversations between a faculty member and a student, and between student and student. However, I’m not sure we can design the future of Georgetown assuming that such a world is near.

Hence, it’s key to ask ourselves the original question. Which of the key interactions between faculty and students require face-to-face interactions and which can utilize new technologies? (Indeed, are there some learning technologies that might do what we now do face-to-face more effectively without such synchronous dialogue?) If some of the desired outcomes of face-to-face communication can be achieved in some other way, then faculty might have even more time to invest in the interaction with students for purposes that really require face-to-face interaction. As President DeGioia has said, the most precious commodity at the university is the amount of time faculty have to spend with students. Every moment of that time should have maximum benefit.

We all have a problem in assessing which benefits of the education at Georgetown can only be derived with face-to-face interaction. We haven’t experienced how things might work using a different approach. This is a reason that the kind of experimentation we’re mounting with the Initiative on Technology-Enhanced Learning and the experimental programs that might arise in the Designing the Future(s) program is important to all of us.

Trying out alternative approaches will help us learn what is essential to maintain in what we do at Georgetown and what might be better done in new ways. We need a culture that promotes such experimentation and evaluation. Only then can we know when place is critical and when it is not.

Big Data for Whom

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For those who believe that better decisions are made using data relevant to the issue, not merely human judgment based on individual experience, we live in a glorious age. Times were not always so. During the 1930′s in the midst of a depression, there was no reliable method of knowing what portion of the population was unemployed. The invention of statistical sampling with its strong abilities to describe the attributes of large population changed all of that. For the latter half of the 20th century, large-scale surveys were the chief tool used to describe our economic status, our satisfaction with the government and basic institutions, the distribution of educational attainment, health care access, and crime victimization — basically all we know about ourselves.

Much of these data were collected by government or academic organizations, and the results were freely shared with the public. In a democracy, freely-shared objective statistical information is a tool of an informed citizenry to determine its future. In a way, the time that the sample households spent in providing their answers to survey questions was recompensed by the benefit to the common good of better information about how the country was doing. Over time, public use data files with anonymized records were made available for research uses, catalyzing the quantitative social sciences. The common good was further supported by deep analysis of key questions facing all societies — which factors affect the likelihood of poverty, which government programs work, and which don’t.

Our world today is different. The sample survey data designed for common good purposes form a much smaller portion of data that exist on human behavior. Many Internet-linked processes generate real-time data. Sensors track utility use; digital transaction records track each health care use; cell phones record physical movements; social media document relationships among people; credit card records document purchases; search terms track information requests, and on and on. It is estimated that the size of these record bases tracking the populations’ behavior increases at a rate of 40% a year. Their sizes overwhelm all known social science and government statistical system data.

Much of the commentary about so-called “big data” has been focused on privacy concerns. Most of these data are collected by private sector entities. Those organizations “own” the data; they use the data to further the goals of the organization. For competitive reasons, they keep their uses of the data shielded. At the same time, commercial data-assembling firms are linking all possible data sources they can acquire to build large data sets used for marketing.

Concerns are raised about whether the uses of individual data may lead to indirect harm to some. Behavior that might be viewed as private might be revealed. The risk of embarrassment or more serious harm may be real.

There is ambiguity about who “owns” data about me. In providing data to another party, I am “loaning” them the data for specific uses; am I “gifting” them all control over my data?

There is a massive contrast between the current data world and the world built up by pre-designed surveys. In the former world, large numbers of attributes were recorded for small numbers of statistically selected persons; in the current world, very small numbers of attributes are collected on large, amorphously defined populations. The new data world consists very lean data, sometimes only recording one attribute (e.g., kilowatt per hour). Many of the questions facing society cannot be answered solely by such data sources. Many of those demand contrasts between subgroups (do large households consume more energy; what’s the impact of age of dwelling on energy use, of work patterns outside of the home, and of age of residents; what is the effect of energy use on health status of the household; do higher energy usage patterns affect health differently for poor and rich households; does education affect the relationship between energy use and health?).

Using “big data” resources to answer such questions requires a conjoining of different big data resources, often in combination with statistical sample survey data with known inferential properties. This will likely not be the construction of one big data set, but the statistical modeling of multiple data sets simultaneously, borrowing strength from each of them to understand key social and economic issues more fully. We at Georgetown are seeking to partner with diverse groups to build such a research environment through the McCourt School of Public Policy’s Massive Data Institute.

We will succeed only if we bring the privacy concerns about big data into the open, discuss them with those having these concerns, and find ways to ensure common good benefits are achieved while full respect is given to those concerns. “Big data in the service of others” should be the watchword of the McCourt School’s Massive Data Institute.

The Right Dosage of Knowledge to Fit the Need

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As the discussions on “Designing the Future(s)” of Georgetown proceed, we’re learning more about how students and alumni think about their learning experiences. Some long-lasting lessons they absorb appear to take time; they can’t be rushed. Such learning starts with the presentation of new material, ideally through a structured protocol designed to add sequentially the necessary complexity to the lesson. Next, there’s some expression of the knowledge bit by bit by the student through exercises or homework. Only after time for reflection can there be a synthesis step, where interconnections among concepts are realized.

Other learnings can be faster. The presentation might be more problem-oriented. The goal is solving problems that share a set of attributes. The outcome is more skill-based, arming the student with a tool to use in the future.

Some learning is integrated over several courses, with a design to cumulate specific knowledge to deeper and deeper levels. The knowledge of the prior course is used in the current course.

As we listen to people reflecting on their experiences, it’s difficult not to start questioning why despite the variation in learning outcomes, the vast majority of courses in most schools at Georgetown share the same fifteen-week structure.

For years I taught a course that had the last three class meetings devoted to some loosely connected topics. In honest reflection, those topics were teasers for the next class in the series, but my treatment was inadequate to produce any lasting impact on the students. The course really should have ended a month earlier.

So, as we ponder the future of Georgetown, I wonder whether we should allow ourselves to think more flexibly, to design learning experiences that aren’t limited to the fifteen-week period. (We all know that business and medical schools have already largely moved in this direction.)

The benefit of this move is more efficient use of our collective time. If we could change the “bite size” of our learning experiences, we might be able to quench more fully the thirst to teach more varied courses, reflective of the cutting edge of our fields. In my opinion, the added flexibility could allow a student great depth and greater breadth of learning. With regard to breadth, a student could more flexibly move across fields. This would be of great advantage for fields facing fewer concentrators. Students taking one-credit, topic-specific courses in the field might even be tempted to take more. With regard to depth, a student might take advanced topics advanced topics in an area, with deeper and deeper content.

I’m aware of some impediments, but I think we’re smart enough to manage them. First, there is an orderly structure to the two semester annual model. Well, we could have five-week courses arranged sequentially throughout the term, adding to fifteen weeks each term. This would force the creation of five-week courses in sets of three simultaneously. Second, in many units the coin of the realm is the faculty workload defined by “the course,” where the effort required for each course is assumed to be equivalent. We’d have to recognize that workload metrics would have to reflect the greater variety of work within the unit. (Some units have already done this.) Third, the administrative procedures would have to recognize completion of courses at different points in the fifteen-week semester. To accommodate shorter course modules in some schools, it’s already been handled. Fourth, how would we assure that all faculty would achieve their necessary workload each year? I think we’re smart enough to figure that out, but we could expand the notion of banking courses to include the need to teach somewhat more in a year following below-minimum teaching.

Human knowledge is expanding at ever greater rates. As keen observers of the world, our graduate and undergraduate students want to learn these new areas. We need more flexible course offerings to achieve the excellence we all seek. What courses in your unit would profit from this rethinking?

Confronting Our Difference Gap

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On several campuses around the country, students of African-American, Latino, Asian, and other racial/ethnic backgrounds, joined by those from low-income backgrounds, are raising issues about the culture of their universities both inside and outside the classroom. Georgetown is among these. Through social media, we have been able to hear the words of those affected (on Twitter #BBGU, #BAGU, #BLGU, among others).

Reading through the tweets from Georgetown and other students, sadly, brought back memories of decades-old issues. It is true that the numbers of students of color have increased over the years at Georgetown. It’s true that Georgetown’s need-blind, “meet full need” admissions increases wealth diversity among students. But greater diversity in numbers does not magically or immediately change the inter-group experiences of those who come to Georgetown.

Georgetown seeks to educate leaders in the global, racially-, ethnically-, culturally-, linguistically-diverse world. They cannot be “men and women for others” if they cannot take on the position of the “other.” I’ve written on this in the past (See: Diversity is the One Thing We All Have in Common with insightful comments). But what we’re doing on this score is clearly not working well enough.

The 140-character stories told in the tweets are instantly clear: Questions posed to students of color that assume they are poor, less well-prepared for Georgetown, or less serious scholars. Perceptions that faculty value the comments of majority students in classes more than those of others. Asking a student of color to speak on behalf of all students of color, depersonalizing him/her in the process. Assumptions of homogeneity of experiences of all students of the same race or ethnic group.

Some observations in the tweets seem to report the actions of naïve, clumsy attempts to communicate across color lines. Some behaviors seem to lack self-awareness when making assumptions about privilege. Some comments appear to be insults stemming from ignorance of the speaker. Others are easily labeled directly offensive to almost all hearers.

While race/ethnicity is often visible, class is often less so. Georgetown strives for wealth diversity, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that students understand what it’s like to be born into a different economic status. For poorer students there are feelings of isolation when discussions among students reveal the privileges and benefits of those students coming from wealth. The stigma of not having discretionary money for the social scene is real.

However, the tweets also have positive, prideful aspects: The confidence of academic abilities. The assurance that one is here at Georgetown to absorb the best education possible (and that these issues are an impediment to that aspiration). Deep attachment to Georgetown, commitment to cura personalis and “women and men for others.”

In short, the tweets and actions of these engaged students have illuminated a feature of the Georgetown culture that is a weakness. We’re stumbling on race and class, failing to take advantage of the diversity we have built at Georgetown.

We need to do more to bring issues of engaging differences to the foreground of our educational community, curricular and co-curricular. Many of our students of color and some of our students from low-income backgrounds have had years of experience dealing with those different from themselves. Some of our students, however, have grown up in environments more isolated on race/ethnicity and class. Georgetown needs to provide experiences that give them understanding and skills to thrive in a multicultural environment. We can’t assume that diversity in numbers automatically produces rich inter-cultural, inter-racial, and inter-class interactions.

Our “Designing the Future(s) of the University” effort is a wonderful opportunity to ask ourselves about new models for building a culture with an inter-class, inter-culture environment. I suspect that success on this requires real engagement from faculty, students, and alumni. We all have a race, a culture, and an ethnicity. We are all part of the solution.

Getting better on this issue requires all of our attentions. A set of student leaders on this issue has been identified; a set of administrators and faculty has pledged their energy to work on the issues. Engaging alumni needs to happen. When Georgetown people work together toward a common goal, wonderful things can happen. This is a time to do so.

Georgetown Forever!

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As we pursue the Designing the Future(s) of Georgetown program, some common principles seem to be emerging. Many of the optional academic programs of the future require the questioning of traditional boundaries of the university.

For example, one traditional boundary is that, once the degree is conferred, whether bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D., the university routinely offers no other services to the graduate. In that sense, our work stops once the degree is awarded. At least, that’s been a long-held assumption.

Why must this be true? Indeed, are we failing to achieve the full promise of Georgetown if we limit ourselves by this assumption?

As scholars in every field know, what we teach students changes over time. Human knowledge is evolving; understanding of old concepts takes on new forms. Further, interdisciplinary research is creating whole new fields. Articles and books being written today become course content three to five years from now and lead to whole new educational programs in ten to fifteen years.

At the same time, we live in times in which occupational classes defined years ago are disappearing and being replaced by others. The job of a journalist in 2014 is very different from one of 1994. The early career of a lawyer in large firms has been greatly altered by globalized access to literate paralegals. Sales forces in the private sector have been impacted by web and social media communication. The retail sector retains little of its configuration of the 1990’s.

Some professions have built into their careers ongoing educational experiences, designed to update their members. Teachers, lawyers, physicians, nurses, and other groups routinely attend continuing and professional education sessions. However, many occupations have little ongoing education throughout the career.

While we can’t predict what will change in fundamental ways, it seems safe to predict that much of what we now teach at Georgetown will be affected by research and development in the coming years. Is it honest to say that what we teach at Georgetown in two to five years is all that is needed for a lifetime?

These questions force us to think about how Georgetown might be of value to those who have already graduated. Could we offer “refresher” or “update” education to them within their chosen fields? If their occupational class has been disrupted by change, could we offer educational experiences that allow them to thrive in the sector, using their valuable experience in the mission of their occupation, but with cutting-edge skills for the morphed sector?

As part of Designing the Future(s), Vice-Provost Randy Bass and his colleagues are beginning a process of reaching out to alumni throughout the country, seeking their ideas about the thoughts above. Are they interested in such educational opportunities? How could these educational opportunities be shaped to fit into their busy lives? Which experiences need face-to-face contact? Which learning experiences could take place online? Could there be groupings of Georgetown educational programs in cities around the world, where alumni could gather together? How much of the education is skill-based (e.g., learning new technology tools)? How much of the education depends on new interdisciplinary insights (e.g., geopolitical influences on global business)? Are there sustainable economic models that would permit us to offer these programs?

The fully evolved vision would result in first-year students at 18 years old entering a life-long learning institution at Georgetown, an institution that would be in continuous contact regarding their educational needs. We wouldn’t stop with the granting of the degree; indeed, we’d only just be beginning at that point.

We hope alumni are interested in discussing these topics, and we look forward to their insights.

Hacking Georgetown-Provided Skills

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About 20 years ago, automobile manufacturers went through a paradigm shift in car design. Instead of viewing themselves as possessing superior knowledge to their customers about the customers’ own likes and dislikes in a car, they began to bring the customers into the design phase. Challenged automotive engineers asked themselves, “What does the average person know about cars? By designing new features in cars, we are the ones who define what’s new and interesting and valued in automobiles.” However, over the years a partnership between the consumer and the designer has become de rigeur for successful auto manufacturers.

This story doesn’t apply to universities perfectly. In one sense, our customers are social and family networks, not merely the visible “customers” in classes, our students. In the most abstract sense, the consumer of the university is the full society in which the university operates, increasingly global in its extents. We are assisting our graduate and undergraduate students to contribute to the society’s welfare, armed with new knowledge, social networks, and skill sets.

But something about bringing the customer into the design studio of Ford evokes some resonance for Georgetown. Last Saturday, Georgetown held a hackathon for the skills that Georgetown students need to have as leaders in the 21st century. A hackathon is a high-energy focus on solving a problem, bringing multiple diverse groups to the problem. I had written on such issues earlier (see: Knowledge, For What?). Students throughout the university, joined by some faculty and alumni, gathered together to address the question of how best for Georgetown students to learn skills that are valuable in the world external to Georgetown. In a sense, the consumer was designing the product.

As I sat among the students, it was clear that they want to know more about the world of work. Many ideas involved new alliances among students, faculty, and alumni to illuminate the skills that are valuable in that world.

They knew they wanted more skills in software development. They wanted more knowledge of financial affairs in organizations. They knew they were not learning enough about self-presentation and oral skills. They wanted organizational and interpersonal skills to facilitate work in teams. They wanted more experience inside real work organizations.

At Georgetown, they wanted to be able to know which skills they could get from different courses. They suspected that they were ignorant of some of the opportunities that exist already on campus. They also suspected that there are some skills that aren’t being taught. They wanted to seek guidance from successful alumni regarding which skills are most valuable.

One idea forwarded was a first year experience for all programs that provide an overview of key tools of research that different fields use at Georgetown, with some connection to real world problems the research addresses.

Another idea was a tool to document for potential employers the skills that the student had acquired during his or her program. In essence, this tool would be a “skills transcript,” albeit one with a 21st century feel. This might be a web-based site that contains both listings of certified skill development and products of the students using those skills, which potential employers could inspect in the hiring process.

Another idea would be to bring the real world into Georgetown. Why not affiliate with ongoing businesses, non-governmental organizations, and government agencies in a more real way, locating them on campus, with students working hand-in-hand with employees? Why not set up real work experiences that bear academic course credit?

One group argued to involve students themselves as instructors in skill sets that they possess but other students lack. Indeed, each student might have an account, which is debited when the person is a student in a skills class and is credited when they are the instructor. Here the “others” in the women and men for others are fellow Georgetown students.

The ideas were all fleshed out in a high energy 10-12 hour period with teams of 3 to 5 people competing against one another. Next steps are evaluating the ideas and implementing those, continuing to use the energy of the students.

Based on last Saturday, in my belief, some of our “customers” have the right stuff to help design a better Georgetown.

The Non-monetized Value of Higher Education, Part 2

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Last week I argued that if we assess the value of higher education solely by the income earned post-graduation, we miss some of the desired outcomes of university training. The great recession, stalled median family incomes, growing tuition costs, and a weak job market have combined to press the question of the value of higher education. I believe, however, that if we equate the value of higher education with job earnings alone, we’re missing some important outcomes.

The revealed preferences of students when choosing a major communicate their desire to learn life skills that do not map nicely into the most lucrative first jobs. They appear to be seeking individual meaning and fulfillment. The means of fulfillment vary across students. They are not income-maximizing in their decisions.

Of course, the attraction of using income as the value of higher education is that it’s nicely measured, in comparable units across all persons. However, despite the fact that the more valuable outcomes of higher education are not measured does not mean that they are not measurable. We must admit, as educators, that we have not spent enough energy identifying and measuring the important outcomes of a university education.

What would happen if we attempted to get serious about measuring these outcomes? How would we go about identifying the short-, medium-, and long-run desired outcomes of higher education? It’s common to hear alumni, many years out of Georgetown, describe what was of lasting value in the Georgetown experience. I suspect the utility of the parts of the education varies over the lifetime. Some lessons learned are immediately applied. Some shape conceptual frameworks, ways of thinking, that are found helpful decades later. Some seem to be direct benefits to the graduate; others seem to be attributes of the graduate that aid the common good or the civil society.

The key non-monetized outcomes would likely draw from both the curriculum and the co-curriculum. They would include cognitive and non-cognitive abilities. They might include skills like leadership, ethical reasoning, and problem-solving. They’d probably include psychological states such as critical empathy or understanding across differences. They might include different approaches to complex problems including design, innovation, and capacity for independent and collaborative inquiry. They might include approaches to risk-taking, uncertainty, and resilience, as well as long term inclinations for reflection, synthesis, and integrative thinking. They might also include self-assessed strength of personal networks for social and career support.

These types of outcomes are currently not measured. But what we measure affects what we do. If we believe these are the important outcomes of higher education, then we should get serious about measuring whether we’re achieving them. If Georgetown achieves these sorts of outcomes then students at graduation should demonstrate more of these attributes than they did at the inception of their Georgetown education.

Some of these attributes are internalized cognitive states of people — attitudes and beliefs that often motivate later behaviors. Developments in self-report measurement of humans have built tools to measure such attitudes and beliefs over the decades. Indeed, much of what we as a society know about ourselves comes from such measurements (e.g., how people look for jobs, their likelihood of buying products in the future, their level of support for government actions). For such attributes that are known by the person having them, we could mount base-line measurements at new student orientation, asking them about these key knowledge sets, attitudes, and beliefs. These are our students as they enter. Then just prior to their exit, we could replicate these measures. Examining the change in our students over their education might inform us on how we’re doing on those key attributes. Monitoring these key metrics over time would tell us what benefits Georgetown actually produces.

A pre-/post-measurement system of students would measure immediate outcomes. Longer-run outcomes require measurement over the life course, at various points in time. Alumni measurements when they are 5, 10, 20, and 30 years out of Georgetown could give us insights into how lessons learned in formal education have shaped their lives over their life course.

If we’re serious about the long-run value of higher education, we should be measuring the key components of that value.

Critics will attack this idea by saying we can’t measure attributes like those above accurately and reliably. I say let’s argue about this when we have the measures. Indeed, my counterargument is that if we don’t try to measure these attributes, we have little evidence that we are achieving the non-monetized outcomes of higher education that we treasure. If we don’t measure them, we may be judged only by the measured, narrow indicators of income.

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