Since assuming my role in August 2010 as President at Capilano University, I’ve given a lot of thought about what it means to be a “quality” post-secondary education institution, not only in Canada but on the world stage as well.
The measure of quality in our colleges and universities is quite possibly the most pressing, and at the same time the most challenging, issue of the times for universities and the communities we serve. The sacrifices that families and students are asked to make in order to achieve the dream of a college or university degree are increasing. As potential and current students ponder whether or not the investment in getting that degree is worth the price, universities such as Capilano are endeavoring to keep costs down, quality up, and access possible. Thus, we all need to pause and consider what constitutes quality in order to keep both universities on track and their students assured that their tuition dollars are an investment in a quality education.
Much has changed in post-secondary education since I began my career in the 1980s as an assistant professor in sociology. Less than a decade ago the stakeholders – our students and their families, the communities we serve, and our government – only considered inputs such as admissions selectivity, the amount of research funding, and public perceptions of reputation and status as indicators of quality. Today, the emphasis is, and rightly so, on the outputs of post-secondary institutions – the learning outcomes of our students, job and world-readiness of our graduates, indebtedness upon degree completion, and so forth. Not only are assessments of these critical outputs very useful in helping colleges and universities review and improve our programs and offerings, they help students in the important choice about where to attend post-secondary and what they can expect to learn there.
One of the most important learning outcomes in today’s complex world is that of mastering critical thinking skills. As students enter a world that is replete in data and information, having the skills necessary to determine valid and reliable information from spurious and false claims of fact is paramount not only to their individual success but also to the success of the societies in which they live.
The need to teach and model good critical thinking skills is a primary reason why colleges and universities throughout North America have begun to question and sometimes withdraw from participation in national rankings and ratings. I call attention to one such example of this in the recent Maclean’s Magazine 6th Annual Student Issue, in which Capilano University “declined to release information” regarding scores on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). The primary reason why Capilano declined to release information to Maclean’s Magazine was due to the lack of reliability of the information as collected. The response rate for the NSSE survey at Capilano was very low; about half that of the response rate for all institutions participating in the 2010 survey. This low response rate to NSSE meant that the reliability of the information collected at Capilano would not provide an accurate picture. The right and honest thing to do was to withhold the information that could potentially mislead students and the general public. In fact, the NSSE results for Capilano University were very similar to the results of our peer institutions and Canadian universities participation in this survey, but publishing these results as a true representation of Capilano student satisfaction would have been erroneous.
Capilano University, like most universities, is actively developing better ways to demonstrate to our stakeholders the learning outcomes of our students as well as other output measures of efficiency and accountability. One of the primary reasons Capilano University is seeking accreditation through the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) is that through the outcomes assessment of student learning, we will have benchmarks for continuous program improvement and provide greater accountability to the government and the citizens we serve. However, in this increasingly complex landscape of higher education, a cautionary tale needs to be told, lest we all fail to model the very critical thinking we hope is achieved by our students. Rankings and ratings are poor proxies as measures of quality. But that being said, our stakeholders need to know that we are endeavoring to find meaningful measures of quality that will give us all a better understand of what students are learning and how that learning will make a difference in our world.
Kris Bulcroft, Ph.D.