Panel Discussion on Capitol Hill Releases New Book
More than 50 invited guests, including legislative staff members, representatives from the Department of Education, D.C.-based education organizations and reporters attended the event at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington. Schapiro and McPherson were joined on the panel by Jeanne Jacobs, president of Miami Dade College’s Homestead Campus, and Linda Clement, vice president for student affairs at the University of Maryland at College Park.
In his introduction, Williams said that he wanted to direct the conversation to cover how federal policy can support higher education and how colleges and universities can measure institutional success in terms that parents and federal officials
“One of the biggest lessons from this effort is that what ‘college success’ means depends on what college and what set of students you are talking about,” McPherson said. “In the United States we overgeneralize and see Harvard as a typical institution. There is a stunning amount of variety in American higher education, a huge difference in what institutions and students are trying to achieve.”
He said that the graduation rate at a place like Williams College is not the best measure of their success. Other types of colleges take more students with weaker college preparation, more complicated lives, or specific limited goals such as job skills, so
“Every institution can have clarity on what goals they are trying to achieve,” McPherson added. “We need to avoid the idea that there could be one scale for ranking or one definition of success for all colleges.”
Schapiro said that Williams College sees about 98 percent of their students graduate each year. “But we still see some differentials within that number by race, ethnicity, nation of origin or socioeconomic status. For example, low-income students graduate at rates around 88-90 percent. We’ve been given a free pass at the most selective schools in the country. I wish we did more serious empirical work to find out why we have different graduation rates [for different groups of students].”
Clement said that her university “admits the best and the brightest, but as a land-grant public flagship we also have an obligation to take a more diverse population of students and give them the opportunity. I want us to think beyond graduation rates, we need to figure out more and better ways to measure student success, in areas such as critical thinking skills.”
Jacobs, who oversees eight campuses and 165,000 students defined success by saying that ultimately, she would like to see her students leave with a degree or certification, but that they have additional markers of success.
“We know we lose students in the first year. If we can provide activities and support services, as well as focus on their academic preparation, they’ll stay with us.” Jacobs said that academic preparation is only one aspect and that she sees many first-generation college students who do not have the know-how to operate in the college climate.
“While I think graduation and retention are important indicators, we need to go a step further and identify those learning outcomes that we want our students to leave with,” Jacobs added and described 10 learning-outcome measurements her college has put in place to keep track of their success.
“We continue to work very hard to be accountable, but at the same time one very important piece for us is funding. We are basically state funded. The financial aid piece is also very important, as many of our students are low-income and are struggling with working, raising a family and going to college.”
McPherson said that there are two areas where federal
“Many students and parents don’t know how to make good choices, and first-generation students don’t have the experience of their parents to rely on.” The federal government could invest resources in much needed college counseling in high school, especially for students in low-income areas. The federal government could also invest in performance incentives for colleges around federal financial aid. “With Pell Grants, institutions could be recognized with bonuses for moving more students through to graduation or certification. We put most of the emphasis in federal aid on initial access and very little
Schapiro returned to McPherson’s point about college counseling and cited the book’s first chapter by Melissa Roderick and Jenny Nagaoka on increasing college access and graduation among Chicago public high school graduates. “The chapter illustrates a disconnect between goals and outcomes. For example, 87 percent of black males [in the study] who graduate aspire to get a four-year degree. Only 9 percent will get it. This is an amazing disconnect.” The chapter also shows that only one-third of students end up at the kind of school where they are capable of succeeding. “Many end up in colleges with 25 percent graduation rates. Success depends critically on where that kid goes to college,” he said, adding that the reason some colleges have such low graduation rates is that they don’t have a lot of funding. The book can be purchased online through the College Board store.
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