October 20, 2016

October 2016 - The Missing Questions in Higher Education Accountability

It is once again the season of college and university rankings. This exercise must be good for sales, since each year there seem to be more and more such lists. They take into account everything from reputational factors, such as how university presidents view each other’s institutions and percentages of applicants accepted, to outcomes of the graduates such as debt load, rate of acceptance into graduate and professional schools, and earnings following graduation. Besides spurring on sales, the rankings no doubt also reflect our society’s competitiveness around higher education as well as the current intensified effort to hold higher education accountable.

College presidents are notoriously skeptical about any effort to capture the complexity of America’s higher education landscape in one ranking. (I have never witnessed such unity among college and university presidents as in their collective repudiation of Obama’s proposed national ranking system!) Nevertheless, I suspect that even the most self-disciplined of presidents cannot resist taking a look at how their institution fared in the latest U.S. News, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal polls.  Despite being fully aware of the limitations of these lists, I cannot help but be glad that Houghton once again retained its standing among only a handful of Christian colleges and universities in the national rankings of liberal arts colleges. (I feel this, even knowing that few readers even note the difference between being a regional or national school!) I would even confess to feeling some pleasure when Houghton appeared second only to Wheaton among full-member CCCU Christian colleges in the recent Wall Street Journal ranking. 

I do believe in higher education accountability. I would also be willing to make a case for the legitimacy and value of any of the factors used in the rankings. While it is easy to downplay the emphasis in the older polls on factors of reputation, and while I much prefer the more recent efforts to focus on the experiences and outcomes that affect current students, I know that reputation does matter. I well recall one of our students telling a class that he probably had received a better education at Houghton than his brother who attended an Ivy League university, but that his brother only had to provide his alma mater’s name to get an interview.

What troubles me is not the questions that society is asking of higher education, but the questions they are not asking. In a time of political polarization, growing social and economic inequity, and changing moral consensus, our society should demand more from colleges and universities than simply retaining their reputation, or even turning out individual graduates who can get high-paying jobs. Society should be asking us about what kind of people we are preparing for those jobs. Can they carry on intelligent conversations with civility and graciousness? Can they form communities – at work, at their places of worship, and in their town – with people different from themselves? Can they work with actual people as well as they work with their smartphones? Do they have a reason for caring for anyone besides themselves? Do they have a basis for moving beyond a life dominated by fear to one shaped by hope? Can they inspire that in others? Finally, is their work, however competent, shaped by love?

These are not easy questions to answer in quantifiable charts and bar graphs. But these are the issues on which our society and our world will rise and fall. As much as I care that Houghton passes the tests that society is putting to us, I care even more that we pass the tests that they should be putting to us.

May each of us who have been shaped by this place called Houghton be creative and courageous purveyors of hope, wherever we find ourselves today. May we season our frantic world with generosity, gratitude, and grace. May we shine light on all that is true and good and beautiful in a way that makes others yearn for things that truly matter. 


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