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Measuring Outcomes that are Difficult to Measure

There is a lot of talk these days on the outcomes of higher education. Much of the public discussion is about the desired outcomes of an undergraduate education, not a graduate education. Due in part to the Great Recession, there is a great focus on what the “return on investment” is for higher education. For example, it’s easy to measure the income of the first job post-graduation as an outcome. The nub of the problem concerns the definition of desired outcomes. From a personal level, what is sought from a university education? From the societal level, what is the role of universities as institutions in advancing a country?

At the societal level, universities ought to be key institutions that produce an informed, engaged citizenry. Part of this is a contribution to the societal culture. Universities collectively ought to be key institutions in facilitating standards of public debate, civic engagement, shared societal goals, definitions of progress, innovation, and well-being. This reminds me of the façade of a junior high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, containing the quotation from Diogenes: “The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.” Universities are key institutions to shape the society.

As part of “Designing the Future(s)” process, there’s a group that is working on the nonmonetized outcomes of higher education that we think we value at Georgetown. They’re attempting to identify the key outcomes consistent with the Jesuit values of cura personalis, the magis, and other aspects that motivate what goes on at Georgetown. This is part of process of a) identifying concepts associated with key valued outcomes, b) inventing ways to measure those concepts, and c) mounting a monitoring system that tracks whether we’re actually achieving the outcomes we seek.

Some of the draft concepts include:
• Learning to learn – the ability to consume efficiently new knowledge. This would entail abilities to identify sources of information about a new field, efficient assembly of that information, knowledge of how to identify the useful information from the unreliable and false, skills at the synthesis of individual facts into higher-level conceptual frameworks, and application of the new knowledge in action.
• Integration – achievement of congruence of values and action. This would be manifested in a sense of interior freedom, schooled by reflection, and in a melding of theory and practice.
• Empathy – openness to others, especially those different from oneself. This attribute is also probably connected to civic engagement and increasingly to a global perspective on issues.
• Resilience – the ability to rebound from negative change. This includes notions of “grit,” taking responsible risks, coping with operating outside of a normal comfort zone, and calmness in chaotic situations.
• Well-being – the state of satisfaction, happiness, self-efficacy. In some sense, this broad personal attribute summarizes many of the first attributes, but deserves its own focus and measures.

Whether these exact attributes end up being our final set is unclear at this point, but their character speaks to the kinds of attributes we believe are key outcomes of a Georgetown education.

The social scientist in me says that we should attempt to measure those at least twice, before the Georgetown experience begins, and immediately after it is completed. (The ambitious social scientist in me says we should measure them continuously throughout a graduate’s life.) We’d hope to see growth in the attributes we value, as a way to answer the question of whether we’re really doing what we hope to do.

The skeptic in me says that these are difficult things to measure well. We should probably have some actions or events in a graduate’s life that should follow from these attributes (e.g., participation in political and social actions). My only rebut to my skeptical side is that never attempting to measure these attributes may permit others to influence Georgetown’s future using very different values than the ones we hold dear.

There’s much work to do. Our colleagues working on this important project will need our help and input over the coming months.

3 thoughts on “Measuring Outcomes that are Difficult to Measure

  1. I love the draft concepts. As a Child PsychIatrist, it seems like a goal for the healthy development of human beings that I have been working with all my career. The key is how the university can best foster that healthy development a mind those are interesting and important questions.

  2. This is something our program at Georgetown has been challenged to do as well but we have found some success in the daunting task of “quantifying the unquantifiable.” It’s a most worthy endeavor, and I wholeheartedly agree with your statement that “Never attempting to measure these attributes may permit others to influence Georgetown’s future using very different values than the ones we hold dear.”

    I’m proud that Georgetown’s leadership is not only looking at outcomes like job placement and graduation rates, but is going deeper to find out what makes a student “successful” and his or her college career an impactful one.

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