Salary not the only yardstick of college success

College Scorecard too narrowly focused

THE RECENTLY RELEASED FEDERAL College Scorecard caused a stir among both the news media and university leadership. The US Department of Education ranked their data by student federal loan recipients’ median salaries 10 years post enrollment. This type of sorting positions institutions against each other in a new and somewhat disconcerting fashion.

While we understand that the government’s purpose for publishing this type of ranking is to hold institutions of higher learning accountable for the nearly $150 billion in federal aid being granted to students each year, the problem is that the study paints the data with too broad a brush.

We should not discount the significance of studying the practical outcome of a college education, including a student’s ability to secure gainful employment, enjoy financial independence, find job satisfaction, and support a family post-graduation. However, the data highlighted in the government study tells only certain aspects of this story. The College Scorecard misses the chance to dive deeper into a larger conversation around what constitutes a successful college experience.

Ken Strickland

Ken Strickland

At Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt), we have always placed a high value on student exploration and growth throughout our degree programs. As the nation’s first and only free-standing, publicly-supported college of art and design and the first art school to grant a degree, MassArt is driven to produce graduates who will contribute to the creative economy of the Commonwealth and beyond.

Our students have many educational options while at MassArt, ranging from fine arts to design, architecture to teaching. The history of our institution is clear on its mission: “MassArt’s founders dared to imagine a better future for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and to believe the path to it lay in creativity. Our goal…is to educate students in the creative process, which in turn will lead to the development of the mind, body, and spirit.”

By prioritizing the most rigorous professional programs in the visual arts, delivered within an environment that embraces social justice, global responsibility, and environmental sustainability, graduates are prepared to move beyond traditional boundaries of status, culture, and viewpoints to enter the world outside of college with a wider perspective.

A more thoughtful approach to defining a useful college experience is fundamental for preparing our students to graduate as productive, inclusive members of our society. Judging whether an art and design graduate is successful simply based on salary misses the bigger picture. In an era where innovation and creativity are critical components to this country’s economic vitality, our government needs to recognize more than just the personal financial impact of a creative education. The intangible aspects are the ones that create our future generation of leaders and fuel our nation’s economy.

A recent ‘value-added’ study by the Brookings Institution titled Beyond College Rankings A Value-Added Approach to Assessing Two- and Four-Year Schools looks at approximately 5,000 higher educational institutions and gauges college alumni performance on three economic measures: midcareer earnings, student-loan repayment, and occupational earnings power. The methodology used by the Brookings Institute compares actual alumni performance against expectations of performance based on student characteristics and college type.

Researchers intentionally used multiple sources of data, or “key quality factors” such as curriculum value, alumni skills, STEM orientation, completion rates, and institutional student aid to rank post-graduate economic success. While no study is flawless, this one is interesting because of its willingness to look below the surface into the categories of curricular offerings made available to students during their tenure at 2- and 4-year institutions of higher education.

Meet the Author

Ken Strickland

Interim president and provost, Massachusetts College of Art and Design
One of the conclusions made by the Brookings’ researchers recognizes a direct connection between the types of programs offered by colleges and the resulting economic futures of students and surrounding communities. The addition of these types of qualitative data cannot and should not be left out of the overall equation.

As do most of my colleagues, I wholeheartedly support increasing the accessibility and transparency of information that helps prospective students and their families navigate the myriad choices related to higher education. A determination of whether a student’s college experience is successful must be an inherently subjective endeavor. Government agencies and those who commission studies on higher education should be encouraged to seek out data that more accurately reflects the intrinsic qualities of the educational experience, not just the potential paycheck in the first decade of a life-long career.

Ken Strickland is interim president and provost of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston.