On today’s college campuses, especially those that focus on undergraduate, liberal arts studies, what measures of institutional quality and student learning are most meaningful to our students, faculty, policymakers, and other constituents?
If we apply National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) data to this question, “quality” could be defined as the degree to which our students are engaged in their learning. I would submit that challenging students intellectually is the fundamental condition needed to promote student engagement, yet when the latest NSSE survey data was recently released, it indicated that only 54 percent of all college freshmen felt challenged by their institutions. Clearly we need to do much better. At COPLAC institutions, we may already be doing so.
When you compare NSSE data for COPLAC institutions against larger flagship schools, we shine as a group. For instance, COPLAC freshmen are 13 percent more likely to give a classroom presentation than freshmen at a flagship university, and nine percent more likely to receive faculty feedback on a writing assignment in draft form. COPLAC seniors are 14 percent more likely to be involved in a service learning course, and 18 percent more likely to have completed a capstone project.
This is great news, but we know that NSSE data is self-reported by our students. How can we develop externally validated instruments to assess the student engagement taking place on our campuses and position it as a key indicator of institutional effectiveness?
Eastern has participated in a Multi-State Collaborative Project (MSCP) over the past two years that could well be a place to start. Connecticut was one of nine states involved in the MSCP, and Eastern was one of five institutions in Connecticut to participate. Other states include Utah, Massachusetts, Oregon, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Rhode Island, and Indiana. Our colleagues at Truman State participated as part of the Missouri cohort.
The MSCP used the Association of American Colleges & University’s Essential Learning Outcomes—emphasizing broad intellectual skills and integrative/applied learning, among other skills—and focused on evaluating actual products of a student’s academic work.
The project assessed artifacts such as the portfolio of a graphic art student, an award-winning educational video produced by early childhood education students, and a robotic prototype built by a computer science student. The review process was done by independent faculty assessors across state lines, not by the faculty who had assigned the work.
Whether we end up using this model only for institution-level assessment, extend it to statewide evaluation in states that have systems of higher education, or even convince our regional accrediting agencies to add this assessment strategy to national accreditation standards, we should be gratified that the types of directed student experiences promoted and supported on COPLAC campuses are favored by American employers and predict success for our graduates.
At least four studies of U.S. employers over the past decade by the Association of American Colleges and Universities have convincingly demonstrated that employers seek to hire college graduates with the types of broad intellectual skills taught at COPLAC institutions—problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication skills. Employers applaud the applied learning approach that continues to evolve on our campuses. And they recognize the value of culminating senior projects, undergraduate research, internships and other engaged learning—all common to our campuses.
Research on liberal arts graduates is also promising. On January 21, 2016, Richard Detweiler, president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, presented findings at the AAC&U annual meeting that have positive implications for COPLAC members. In examining liberal arts graduates 10, 20 and 40 years after graduation, Detweiler assessed the impact of the intimate learning environment found on our campuses against three key attributes—citizenship, leadership, and personal happiness. He found that liberal arts graduates are 30-100 percent more likely to exhibit leadership than college graduates as a whole. Liberal arts graduates were 26-66 percent more likely to be contributors to society. The two factors that seemed to impact graduate success the most were (1) the degree to which students were able to interact with faculty members in and outside the classroom, and (2) the degree to which students took classes outside their major.
We are doing the right thing on our campuses, giving students a faculty-supported experience in a broad range of academic subjects, grounded in applied opportunities. Employers want students with this type of educational background, and research is showing it produces successful professionals who are also leaders in their community. If we can refine our assessment of this rich yet complex student experience, we will be able to further validate our unique mission and strengthen the message we continue to articulate to constituents.