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In the debates reframing higher education, there is no discussion as heated as the one focused on the value a student receives from attending college.  Yet inherent in this debate is a false dichotomy—one that places getting a job upon graduation in opposition to what may seem like a more abstract life-long value.

At Sarah Lawrence, we do not accept this false dichotomy, and here’s why.

Value of higher education
Karen R. Lawrence

It is critical that we help prepare our students to lead productive lives when they graduate. But it is equally critical that we—and our students—avoid buying into the illusion that a narrow focus on a specific job or salary at the moment of graduation will prepare that student for the 21st century.  Many jobs that exist today will not exist in five years, and many that will exist in five, 10, or 20 years have yet to be invented.

The value of a college education should be measured by how well it imparts critical abilities that students will need to thrive, not just today, but in the years and decades to come. These critical abilities will allow graduates to fulfill their potential and to make a difference in the world.

There is no simple “either-or” here.  We must resist calls to monetize a college education to determine its value.  Students have the right to expect to be able to create meaningful lives for themselves in whatever field and salary they choose—whether in social services or business, in teaching or entrepreneurial enterprises. Why? Because in speaking to the value of an education we are speaking about the personal and professional trajectory of a human being.

With this in mind, I believe the central goal of higher-education institutions such Sarah Lawrence College must be to graduate “world-ready” critical thinkers with the capacity to acquire new skills and adapt to a fast-changing landscape—who can put their learning to work in the world, both immediately and 50 years down the line.

To deliver on this promise, we must answer three questions:  What are the critical abilities our students require to thrive, not just today, but in the years and decades to come? How do we structure our educational approach to develop these abilities? And how can we evaluate whether our students have, in fact, developed these critical abilities, and do so in a way that allows us to analyze and continuously improve the value we deliver?

Liberal arts institutions in general have not done enough to answer these questions. Students have a right to receive transformational and appreciating value from their educations—and an equal right to understand what that value is, how well it is delivered and how it is measured. We have recently taken an aggressive and innovative step in this direction.

Through an internal, faculty-driven process, augmented by external research, we have identified six critical abilities that are recognized by business and nonprofit leaders as essential for students’ success in the 21st Century: to think analytically, to express ideas effectively in writing, to exchange ideas effectively through oral communication, to bring innovation to their work, devise and carry out an independent project, and to accept and act on criticism.

There are many aspects to how these six critical abilities are developed and expressed by our students—as well as how they are manifested in class.

Our faculty developed and, last spring, implemented a web-based assessment platform to capture assessment data for each ability, for every student, in every course.  This platform, which we believe is the first of its kind in a liberal arts environment, provides data that augments and can be correlated with evaluations. This new tool has been designed to avoid the pitfalls of assessment tools such as standardized tests that are often unconnected to our teaching practices.

We expect this to help us spot positive and negative patterns emerging among students; better understand the value that comes from learning and teaching, and assess our impact; and provide individual faculty and the college as a whole with feedback we can use to improve our impact.

Our goal is to validate that our graduates are armed with the abilities we believe they need to fulfill their personal destinies in their lives after college. We also want to find where we fall short in developing these abilities.

We know that many students and parents (as well as the Obama Administration, as it explores its proposed rating system of colleges and universities) will continue to focus on factors such as the short-term average earnings of graduates.  There will be colleges that focus purely on this. There will also be colleges that focus on a pure potential-of-the-mind model. But to offer true value to our students, we must reject the false dichotomy once and for all.

We hope our assessment platform will serve as a jumping-off point for further discussion about how other colleges can approach assessment.  If we do not come together to thoughtfully measure value, we will be subject to those handed to us—likely to be uncomfortably narrow, and with consequences counter to our educational missions.

Karen R. Lawrence is president of Sarah Lawrence College.

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