In the past week both President Barack Obama and MLA President Michael Bérubé have drawn attention to one of our favorite topics, namely, measuring higher education outcomes. In the State of the Union, Mr. Obama asked “Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid” and announced “a new ‘College Scorecard‘ that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” In an article for the Chronicle Review, Professor Bérubé reprised comments earlier reported depicting a “seamless garment of crisis” in Humanities graduate education. We’ve commented on the earlier report here.
Within 24 hours, Bérubé’s remarks were twice forwarded with approving notes to faculty in Mark’s department. So, in terms of resonance with English professors, Bérubé beat the White House. Since we think federal policy likely to be more formative in shaping this discussion than pronouncements from the MLA, the difference in reception wants concrete examination.
In our view, the White House’s plan presents humanists with a very clear challenge: that of making sure the numerical measures actually capture outcomes in our disciplines. Kevin Kiley offers this point of view in a recent post on Inside Higher Ed. He argues that “the scorecard does not include information about learning outcomes, long-term student success or student satisfaction, factors that many in higher education say are equally valuable and are areas where institutions that value general education would likely perform well.” Kiley’s sources include Rich Ekman, “president of the Council of Independent Colleges, which represents about 600 small private colleges.” Ekman notes: “‘Short-term measures don’t tell you enough of the story. We don’t want people to go to school for just one reason. There are lots of reasons that factor into that decision, and the scorecard privileges the wrong ones.'”
Ekman must have in mind the scorecard’s Employment metric, which is notably still under construction (and may require a change in federal law to put into effect), but that seems likely to skew toward those fields that place students in high paying jobs immediately upon graduation, since good information about outcomes over the the long term is harder to come by. Short term data is becoming available from a number of sources, however, including CollegeMeasures.org and Payscale. The latter ranks institutions by graduate salary. Pick any spot in the list, and one discovers strange bedfellows. Princeton is on top, followed by Harvey Mudd, Caltech, the Naval Academy, West Point, MIT, and Lehigh. College Measures has data for some states and some schools within those states and some majors within those schools. It is a little difficult to compare apples and apples.
In mounting a reasonable critique of the White Houses’s strategy for presenting the data that is out there, Kiley notes that liberal arts advocates have a concrete stake in what data are collected and presented and ought to join that argument. Bérubé’s approach is notable for his avoidance of this challenge or anything like it. So what, we wonder, would make his column appealing to English professors?
In that column, the humanities crisis is primarily a crises of graduate education. It is defined by: overproduction of PhDs, an inability to find alternative career paths for Humanities PhD holders, and the apparent intractability of an increasingly tiered workforce divided between tenure-track and casual professors. Bérubé concludes that “we need to remake our programs from the ground up, to produce teachers, and researchers, and something elses, but since it is not clear what those something elses might be, we haven’t begun to rethink the graduate curriculum accordingly.”
This argument is frustrating for a number of reasons.
First, because some of us have begun to think about those something elses, and in ways that do not require us to divorce graduate from undergraduate education. (As we discuss in another earlier post, David Laurence’s research into the humanities workforce is an important effort in this regard.)
Second, because we do in fact have some sense of what else humanities grads are already doing, it seems counter productive in the extreme to “remake our programs from the ground up” as Bérubé suggests. Rather, it makes better sense to exploit what they already do well and revise the rest. (In a recent article for the Chronicle, Meghan Doherty provides an interesting run down of the strengths and weaknesses of the humanities PhD as preparation for nonacademic work. ) We don’t need a revolution, but rather reform that acknowledges the range of fields in which humanities grads succeed after school.
Third, because the apparent radicalism of Bérubé’s appeal seems more likely to result in temporarily satisfying but ultimately fruitless hand-wringing than actual change. Tear it up and start anew is rewarding to think but institutionally foolish. (As Bérubé rightly notes, Deans get nervous when departments trash whole curricula and swerve wildly in their strategic plans.) Build on your strengths and fix the rest seems a more prudent (if less exciting) way to go. We’d encourage foregoing the catharsis of blowing things up.
Bérubé is right to voice concern about some currently fashionable ideas for reform. Attempts to equate Alt-Ac with Digital Humanities put too much faith in the promise of technology and too little in the power to organize a division of labor. It is also worth remembering, as Bérubé notes, that we have been down the Alt-Ac road before: then MLA President Elaine Showalter tried to promote something like it in 1998 and was shouted down by a disparate array of critics who feared the creation of a “second class” of PhDs and PhD programs. Acknowledgement of that concern, however, ought not blind us to the reality on the ground. Many humanities grads already work in alternatives outside academe.
Business school deans seem to be further along in thinking about this than the president of the MLA. The Wall Street Journal reports “that the business schools at George Washington University, Georgetown University, Santa Clara University, and others are tweaking their undergraduate business curricula in an attempt to better integrate lessons on history, ethics, and writing into courses on finance and marketing.” At an Aspen Institute meeting of business school leaders last month, the Journal reports considerable discussion about “ways to better integrate a liberal arts education into the business curriculum.” The reason for this campaign is obvious: employers want employees with liberal arts skills. “Companies say they need flexible thinkers with innovative ideas and a broad knowledge base derived from exposure to multiple disciplines. And while most recruiters don’t outright avoid business majors, companies in consulting, technology and even finance say they’re looking for candidates with a broader academic background.”
This should be good news for the humanities workforce. To receive it as such, however, humanists have to be willing to understand their curricula in more instrumental ways. The culture of many humanities departments (including our institutional homes) tends to resist aims other the promulgation of disciplinary protocols. Humanities curricula are plenty plastic: we change our requirements and our syllabi all the time. But the criteria we use to decide how to do so rarely consider employability outside the discipline. Why? If only it could be chalked up to laziness and ignorance! The prevailing sentiment seems, rather, to be defensive and antagonistic, as if engaging in outcome-talk amounts to daemonic possession by (take your pick) the market, the number crunchers, or Someone who Hates Us in central administration.
To find righteousness in avoidance of outcomes is to nurture a self-destructive fantasy in which our disciplines somehow exist exterior to the university. Or else we fantasize a university that somehow exists apart from the society that funds, charters, and populates it. For the vast majority of people who enter them, colleges and universities are on the road to somewhere else. It is imperative that we expand our sense of paths our students take and think seriously about those we want to encourage.
President Obama’s scorecard ought to inspire such deliberation. What kinds of jobs do we want for our students? How, other than starting-salary, might we measure success?
When they engage such questions, humanists tend to favor anecdotal answers. To whit, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust responded to the scorecard idea in a letter to the editor of the New York Times:
I graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1968, and my first job was working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. My starting salary was low, but I was inspired by the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty to regard public service as an important calling. I went on to graduate school, joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and ultimately became the president of Harvard University. Should Bryn Mawr have been judged based on what I was paid in my first year at HUD?
It’s a good story, and the answer to the question it poses is obvious. Faust is no doubt right to argue, further, “Equating the value of education with the size of a first paycheck badly distorts broader principles and commitments essential to our society and our future.” To be sure, there are “goods” not measurable in dollars and cents.
But there are drawbacks to rebuttal by anecdote. This one, for example, encourages us to imagine that any liberal arts grad could become the President of Harvard. If she could not, then like the romantic self-fashioning that dominates writing about Alt-Ac, there is no more of an institutional fix in this president’s response to Obama than in MLA president Bérubé’s Chronicle column. It may not be case that any competing model of outcomes must have numerical data, but it seems crucial that anecdotal responses appear symptomatic. Data sets help with that, and it would behoove us to have them.
Data interact with crisis talk in interesting ways. For example, the numbers suggest universities are overproducing graduate students in the hard sciences just as zealously as they are in the humanities, as Jordan Weissmann has noted here, here, and here on The Atlantic‘s web site. “[N]next time you hear a politician talking about our lack of science talent,” Weissmann recommends, “remember all those young aerospace engineers, chemists, physicists who will still be casting around for a gig after they’re handed a diploma. There’s no great shortage to speak of.” But is there a crisis?
Mark and John