Measuring What's Important In Higher Education
The dominant (but not exclusive) reason students pursue postsecondary education is to obtain the credentials necessary for a good job. Similarly, the dominant (but not exclusive) reason governments support public higher education is to ensure a stream of graduates with the skills to support the workforce and economy.
There is a lot of chatter of a gap between the skills of postsecondary graduates and requirements of today’s jobs. Opinions differ as to the existence or size of this gap. What we know for sure is that the opinions of academics teaching in our postsecondary institutions and employers who hire their graduates differ: the majority of academics think they are doing a good job; the majority of employers disagree.
Given the dominant motivations of students and governments to support public higher education, it seems reasonable to ask how we can better ensure that a postsecondary education equips students with the skills necessary for getting a good job and succeeding at it.
First, do we know what skills employers want in their new hires and what they see as their greatest deficiencies. Yes. Numerous employer surveys are consistent and emphatic. Employers appear satisfied with the knowledge base of postsecondary students. The attributes employers find of greatest importance and most lacking, though, are a set of general cognitive skills – e.g. literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, problem solving – and interpersonal skills – e.g. teamwork, persistence and resilience..
The second question is whether postsecondary graduates have those skills employers want and claim are lacking. We don’t know. Why? Because we don’t measure these things, certainly not directly. There are simply too many complaints from employers and professors and too much research to assume that the mere fact that someone has graduated from a postsecondary program means that they have acquired these essential skills to an appropriate level.
The most important question, therefore, is how we can we ensure that the skillset most academics believe students should acquire during their postsecondary programs and that employers are looking for – e.g. be literate, numerate, a problem solver, resilient – are actually learned. Simple, measure them. We have psychometrically sound instruments to measure some of these skills and competencies. For those we don’t, some exciting research in higher education is trying to develop them. The shift to emphasizing skills and competencies is transformative in higher education; it speaks to how we design curricula, deliver courses and develop course outlines, what we think is important to learn, how we credential the performance of students and how we measure and demonstrate the importance and value of higher education to the student and to the public.
Right now, professors and postsecondary institutions expend considerable time and effort to measure whether students absorb facts and content, even knowing that much of the information may well be obsolete in the not too distant future. Let’s shift some of this attention to evaluate the enduring skills and competencies that are critical to navigating successfully an increasingly complex world. Since what gets measured gets done, this perspective will undoubtedly also lead to new, more effective pedagogical techniques for fostering and enhancing these necessary life skills.