Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Measuring the Value of Higher Education

Here's a piece I just wrote about what really matters in higher education.

Max Page: Measuring up at UMass — why inspiration counts, even if it can’t be tallied

Here is a story about one student’s education at the University of Massachusetts.

One of my thesis students from our architecture program recently came back to campus to participate in the opening ceremonies of an exhibition she worked on while a student. She works as an architect and has what 

Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland considers the supreme measure of the education we provide at the university – a professional license. I’d like to suggest that her acquisition of a license is the least important measure of what we at UMass did with and for her.

When I first had this student in class she was energetic but lacked intellectual self-confidence. I was unsure of how well she would develop into a self-directed architect. I was pleased that she enjoyed my courses — which were on the philosophy of architecture and the history and theory of historic preservation. Over the course of three years in our program, I had her in class three times and then served as one of her thesis committee members.

I watched, increasingly pleased, as she became confident, intellectually curious and creative. She began to speak out in class, and to push back against ideas and designs she thought were deficient. She broke away from her earlier education as an engineer and pushed the boundaries of her artistic vision. She is now a different person — not just a different architect — than when she joined our program.
In her new home and job she is helping to remake the culture of her firm after just a few months on the job; she is seeking out opportunities to teach at a nearby undergraduate architecture program. She is entering competitions and serves on a national architecture professional board.

I believe passionately that over the course of her life, this first paid job and license are the lesser parts of what she learned at UMass. She has told me that she gained so much more, and so much that is intangible, which will shape her role as a worker and citizen, and even as spouse and perhaps mother. On her recent visit, she spoke glowingly about her education at UMass and how courses – the design studios taught by my colleagues as much as mine – inspired her to think anew about architecture and her purpose as a designer.

The key word was not “trained” but “inspired.” The message here is not that we should be uninterested in our students getting jobs. I am glad this student has a good job, can pay back her debts and build a financially stable life. And I think we should undertake programs to help students translate their arts and humanities learning so that employers can see their value in the workplace.

And I offer this story not to brag about what me and my colleagues accomplished as her teachers – there were no doubt many other influences on her. Instead, I tell this story in order to offer a test question to those who seem so eager to squeeze our education down to something that can be measured by a number: How will you measure what this student accomplished, and what I, in a small way, helped her do?

There is a reason that Freeland chose “professional licensure” as a measure of what we do at our public colleges and universities: it is a number that can be compared to other states.

But before we embrace this “accountability” regime – which is really a “counting” regime — I need to know how they are going to measure the expansion of my student’s brain and her heart, how they will measure her renewed conviction to the architectural profession, and a new intellectual strength that has allowed her to propose new ideas and speak up, in class and in public meetings.

What “proxy” measurement will they use to capture the value of her education – the number of buildings built? Competitions won? Amount of money earned?

If you can’t measure it – and I don’t believe you can – then you will have failed to measure the most important work of education we did together, as professor and student. When we start substituting “measurable” proxies for what we really do at UMass, then we aren’t just “making the best of a bad situation” but contributing to it.

There is no good proxy for measuring the education of a whole person, which is why for a millennium higher education has been measured by the accomplishments of faculty and students to society, through their works of beauty, and their life-saving efforts and discoveries, through their service and their participation. 
There is no alternative to telling story upon story of our radiating influence in the Commonwealth and beyond.
Story upon story add up to the legacy of UMass. That is something you can count on.
Max Page is a professor at the University of Massachusetts and member of Educators for a Democratic Union, a progressive caucus within the Massachusetts Teachers Association. He can be reached at Max Page

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