by Leo Z. Archambault, DBA
For most parents and prospective students, the search for the college or university of the greatest significance is analogous to seeking the “holy grail,” something greatly desired but nearly impossible to find. In their book, “Metrics That Matter: Counting What’s Really Important to College Students,” Bleemer, Kumar, Mehta, Muellerleile, and Newfield (Bleemer et al.) provide the reader with an overview of the myriad of helpful ranking guides that provide ways to, hopefully, make the best choice possible to assure the promises of higher education. While higher education has evolved over time, transforming its mission and ideals, the strength of this book is how the five authors created a methodology similar to the Delphi technique combining their individual backgrounds and expertise to note key caveats of these rating concepts.
Since knowledge is power, the authors want their readers to reconsider the importance of higher education in today’s world by stressing the following key issues:
- Return on investment – This ratio can create a myopic view of career advancement since it does not account for the cumulative value of transferrable skills acquired by the graduate. It is difficult to accurately quantify the use of these skills, but some companies, such as Payscale, might try. Payscale has research validity limitations due to its focus on white-collar careers, the use of self-reported income data, and non-random and small data sets. This leads to misleading career-value estimates (STEM fields vs. Humanities) and a misleading idea that the value of a college education is solely a financial/value-added pursuit.
- University rankings – These ranking lists seek to provide the students/parents a “rule of thumb” metric in selecting the best institution, but it serves more as a marketing tool for the higher ranked schools. The authors present previous research that examined institutions based upon different levels (low and high) of rank ratings. They cite a study that students attending higher ranked institutions rather than closely ranked choices, had higher wages, but enrolling in those universities had no relationship with their future earnings. In Bleemer’s study of institutions with large rank differences, he suggests the best metric for separating the “wheat from the chaff” is to use the graduation rates of the institutions. Since rankings can be numerically manipulated (“gamed”), graduation rates would be a more valid indicator of an optimal choice.
- Selectivity – This metric refers to equating the quality of the institution to the admission rate — the lower the percentage of acceptance, the higher the level of quality. Selectivity has become a badge of honor for the students and their families and deemed a fount of higher future earnings for the graduate. Using the University of California system (UC), the authors provide evidence that selectivity ratios do not measure student quality, academic quality, or subsequent graduate success. In economic terms, the selectivity is a “supply-demand” ratio that creates a self-fulfilling prophesy; increasing the number of applications for a finite number of seats will increase the selectivity of the institution. Their research also suggests that an institution’s instructional spending per student is a better measure to consider in the selection process.
- Tuition sticker price – A common adage is “you get what you pay for,” but in marketing terms, prices often quoted might not always end in immediate sales. This is relevant in the consideration of tuition pricing, which suggests the higher the price, the better the product. Sticker price is a double-edged sword; it can both persuade or dissuade the individual in selecting an institution of higher learning to attend. Bleemer et al. suggest that the students/parents should refer to new resources of tuition information (MyinTuition and College Scorecard) to aid in their selection process.
- Scorekeeping student debt – This is a complex issue brought about by a mindset change in seeing an education as a private product. This leads to changes in the student loan structure turning it into a separate industry that benefits the lender more than the borrower.
- Average wages by college major – This metric is complex and has many challenges due to low-quality data (limited to self-reported data), missing data (focuses on only college graduates), and cost-of-living standards of the wage earners relative to their geographic location. Much depends upon whether it is best to consider wage by major or on the overall value of the transferrable skills acquired and utilized by all students.
- Access to your preferred major – Bleemer et al. note that for some majors, there are barriers to entry related to the individual preparedness of the students as well as their cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. This factor might impact their social mobility; therefore, it is important for prospective students to understand the salient academic requirements for their preferred major.
Finally, Bleemer et al. offer needed guidelines for navigating the morass of college ranking systems. Their well-researched and enlightening primer should be read by higher education administrators (in areas related to student advisement, admissions, and career development services), high school guidance counselors, parents, and prospective students. The onus is on the aforementioned parties to aid the student in becoming better aware of today’s higher education landscape. By doing that, we can fulfill for the student the message inscribed on the Oracle of Delphi in Greece — Know Thyself.
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