By Deb Bushway, Interim President
Over the years, U.S. News & World Report has become one of the standards in higher education for measuring and ranking institutions. There has been a lot of debate within higher education about the merit and value of the U.S. News rankings, but it is difficult to argue that they haven’t been impactful. They draw a lot of attention, and many institutions take them very seriously.
We were intrigued when we heard that U.S. News was going to apply their rankings to online colleges and universities, and we were very excited when they reached out to a team at Capella University for feedback on our measurements. Naturally, we urged them to focus on outcomes rather than inputs.
If there is such a thing as a typical university, it’s safe to say Capella University isn’t it. We were founded nearly 20 years ago with the mission of extending access to high-quality higher education to adults looking to advance their education. Our average student is a 39-year-old female balancing family and work while trying to get the education she needs to advance her career. She has turned to Capella because we are an online institution that provides the rigor and access she needs in her chosen field. As an institution focused on working adults wanting to advance their careers, we are an 80 percent post-graduate institution.
Like many institutions, Capella University has been frustrated by our inability to effectively compare the education we provide to that of others. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, there aren’t a lot of institutions that look like us, so it’s difficult to make comparisons. For instance, we have a requirement that our students must be 24 or older in most cases. This automatically makes us very different from most other higher education institutions. The second reason is that the most commonly used measures for comparing one institution to another are focused on traditional inputs (or the qualities of students coming in the door) rather than educational outcomes (did students learn skills that will advance them in their careers). This leaves us with antiquated metrics that don’t adequately measure our students.
Capella fundamentally believes that increased transparency and accountability around outcomes is the path forward for the future of higher education. Capella has spent a great deal of time and energy building systems through competency-based curriculum to measure learning outcomes and make those measurements public through our own website and our participation in collegechoicesforadults.com. Last year, we were the first online university to be recognized by The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) for our work on student learning outcomes. We were honored for our outcomes-based curriculum that begins with assessing the educational needs of an adult learner and building programs and courses to meet those needs. The president of CHEA called Capella University a "leader in accountability in higher education."
Unfortunately, the final questionnaire from U.S. News appears highly focused on inputs rather than outcomes. While the survey does include a few general questions related to outcomes, they provide no clarity on how the answers provided by participating institutions will be weighted. For the average 39-year old Capella learner in the middle of her career, where she finished in her high school class, her high school GPA, SAT and ACT scores, and her geographical location are not particularly relevant measures of quality or excellence. A far more relevant measure is the degree to which our students graduate having learned what we told them they would learn and whether that knowledge is applicable in advancing their careers.
While measuring these learning and career outcomes is understandably difficult (we certainly don’t claim to have all the answers on measuring outcomes), it is not impossible. One good place for U.S. News to begin is to ask whether an institution even measures learning outcomes. For those who do, they can press into the rigor behind those assessments.
U.S. News & World Report is focused on the right thing. There is great importance in transparency, disclosure and accountability. However, we believe they are asking the wrong questions. We aren’t going to fill out the survey this year, but we hope that as we move forward they’ll be open to a continuing discussion that moves the focus from the inputs we’ve all been using as a basis for comparison for years to the outcomes that are much more relevant to today’s students.