Does higher education care about the unique and potentially transformative goals students have in mind when they decide to assume six figure debt and substantial opportunity cost while committing years of discretionary time to pursue a college degree? Do colleges and universities invest in learning students' goals or helping students achieve them?
The Importance of Goals
Most students, even the shrinking class of traditional students who attend at the urging of parents, have specific goals that are logically and usually also empirically linked to the reason they chose to enroll at a college. Sometimes represented by a vision or meme, these goals are usually complex and multi-faceted, involving their sense of self, their family (and future family), their employer (or future employer) and more. Indeed, goals capture or reflect the vision students project for who they will become. These goals are important not only to the students who own them but to everyone associated to the institution of higher education. Among other things, the strength and clarity of students' goals, along with perceived progress toward meeting them, are instrumental in student persistence and success.
Students' goals are not static. Over time and as a result of their educational experiences, they evolve in ways that make them richer and more adequate. The enrichment of students' goals reflects an enrichment of their sense of self, their world view, and their place in that view. Indeed, higher education's most important contributions can be viewed as helping its students create and fulfill better refined goals.
Individual vs. Institutional Caring
We can all think of times when someone said they cared but failed to act on that caring when the opportunity arose. In human parlance, a person's claim to caring is validated by appraising the relations between symbolic expressions and behaviors that validate those expressions.
When organizations claim that they care, we look for different but analogous forms of evidence. When a retail service company claims that customer service is its first priority, the validity of that claim is assessed by examining not how many times they make the claim but by examining organizational structure, roles, budgets, employee head counts, phone and email directories, data gathering and actions, and so on.
Colleges and universities are no exception. I cannot recall having a meal with a college president who did not, at some time in the conversation, profess the institution's deep care about the success it its students. At that point, the conversation often turns when I ask about the particulars of how the institution has operationalized and evaluates its profession to care.
How do we validate a claim to institutional caring if we take it to mean that the institution cares whether or not students meet their goals as a consequence of the enormous commitment of time, energy, and money they have invested in the institution?
Follow the Money
For most colleges and universities, a close look at organizational structure, roles, employee head counts, phone and email directories, or simply budgets, provides little evidence of caring. To find evidence of caring we might investigate the kinds of data systematically gathered and acted upon.
Very few institutions even ask students about their goals. If they do ask, it is on an admissions essay that is filed away with other admissions papers. Admissions counselors do not spend time helping students identify and clarify their goals, assisting in making them measurable, or breaking them into incrementally achievable steps that can be tracked and managed for progress. The institution does not track, manage, or report on students' progress in achieving their goals. Functionally, the nation's colleges and universities do not measure, manage, or attempt to optimize the achievement of students' goals. In fact, nothing in the institution's structure suggests that students have goals or that the institution has any role or responsibility to ensure that they are met.
Functionally, the nation's colleges and universities do not measure, manage, or attempt to optimize the achievement of students' goals. In fact, nothing in the institution's structure suggests that students have goals or that the institution has any role or responsibility in ensuring that they are met.
Indifference of Regulator Class
It turns out that the overseers and regulators don't care much either. While they lay claims to caring in much the same way as college presidents, these agencies and organizations lack the institutional architecture that would validate a claim to caring. In fact, the regulator class explicitly denies the validity of student goals and the degree to which they are achieved as part of a pre/post framework for defining student outcomes and institutional effectiveness.
- Institutional accreditors dismiss student goal attainment as materially insignificant to the mission and purposes of the institutions they oversee. Soft , unfocused, secondary, and personal are adjectives I have heard hear from leaders at HLC, SACS, and WASC when I raised this topic. There are exceptions. Community college accreditors have added structures to measure and manage goals associated to migration to other institutions of higher education. This is a start.
- The Department of Education doesn't care about students' goals either. They are focused, some would say excessively, on federally insured loans and campus social issues, both of which connect to student goals instrumentally but not directly. One exception is the Department's separate standards constructed to constrain the growth of for-profit colleges and universities. The Department has imputed to these institutions a single goal of having its students secure gainful employment. This might be a good idea except that non-profit institutions are permitted to ignore this goal and the goal itself should accommodate the multiplicity of goals and timelines for professional development.
- Universities, colleges, and academic departments demonstrate a lack of caring when they fail to determine students' goals, refine them if necessary, break them into measurable milestones, and place these data in the student information system. They fail to assess progress towards these goals at points throughout the student lifecycle. Instead of assessing goal achievement upon graduation and placing a detailed report on gains in each student's hand, most colleges conduct occasional surveys that ask a random sample of graduates generic questions related to achieving their unspecified goals. Occasionally the results of these surveys are discussed until someone points out that a 16% response rate does little to inform action. At this point, the results of the institution's only attempt to learn about student goals, albeit after the fact, gathers dust on a shelf.
What do higher education's stakeholders care about?
The short answer is that stakeholders care about the things in which they, and not necessarily students, are interested. An institution's goals may be defined by a faculty senate, program goals are defined by deans, and so on. Not all goals that originate with the institution are substantive or even worth setting out. Anyone who has served on university committees knows all too well that some of the goals we impose on students are trivial; some are even petty and self-serving.
Why Should They Care?
Despite the mainstream view that student's goals are peripheral to the business of higher education, a case can be made - a strong one in my view - that students' goals define the core of a relationship between themselves and the institutions that take their money. It is not difficult to argue that this relationship constitutes an implied contract the implications of which extend beyond the obligations accorded or even acknowledged by most colleges and universities. Student goals define central and important outcomes by which courses of study must be evaluated.
For the small minority of college students not yet of voting age, it might be argued that parents "own" those goals. While that view is debatable, I concede it for the purposes of this discussion, noting however:
- Most students today (around three-quarters) are informed consumers who have acquired adult social, civic, and financial responsibilities.
- Many of them (around half) have acquired family responsibilities and have already initiated meaningful and career-centered work.
These students, especially working adult and professional students, enroll in a program for specific reasons. These reasons are tied to concrete personal and professional goals. Whether we would agree with the judgments of a particular student, their legal and social status as adults confers a sense of finality on these judgments and an equal sense in which they are not subject to our purview.
These students, especially working adult and professional students, enroll in your program for specific reasons . . . tied to concrete personal and professional goals. Whether we would agree with the judgments of a particular student, their legal and social status as adults confers a sense of finality on these judgments and an equal sense in which they are not subject to our purview.
Like it or not (and we academics tend not to like it), if a student wants a degree in accounting to become a more effective manager in specific ways she has clearly identified and, if that student has made it clear that she has no interest in becoming an accountant, our goal of having her prepare to sit for the CPA examination is as wrong as it is irrelevant to the student. Understanding the social contract we have with the students requires that we set that goal aside. When we fail to assist students achieve their goals, we forgo an important opportunity to meet their needs by improving the services we provide them. This failure has long-term consequences because these students appraise the quality of their experiences with your institution, including the extent to which your programs and support services were instrumental in attaining their goals.
The institution benefits in many concrete and measurable ways by paying attention to students' goals. Many of these benefits are interdependent; most of them translate into financial benefits.
Working with students on their goals establishes a closer relationship which translates into improved retention to break/even, improved retention to graduation, increased forward-looking insight into needs for program development and modification, and overall increased workplace enjoyment. The ability to report progress toward goals at defined milestones (calendar and event driven) and do it in a way that is meaningful to students and other stakeholders, especially instructors, advisors, and retention counselors, not only increases student engagement and all of its benefits, it also provides other stakeholders, especially faculty and program developers, insights not available elsewhere.
Working with students on their goals enables mid-course corrections for the benefit of students and the institution. It becomes possible to accommodate not only progress to date but the refinements that students make in their goals as they progress in their courses of study. These refinements validate one of higher education's most important outcomes, the migration of goals in dimensions of increasing scope, depth, consistency, value integrity, and utility.
Is Change on the Horizon?
Institutional events that are not attended to, refined, measured, managed or rewarded are systemically unimportant. It is no more than lip service for an institution to claim otherwise.
It is neither defensible nor beneficial to the institution to ignore students' goals by failing to integrate them into the educational structure and process. Moreover, it is questionable to do as we do today in assigning precedence to instructor goals over student goals.
While these issues may be visible only at the margins today, it is only a matter of time before we see the integration of student goal attainment into academic structure and process.
A related Executive Briefing will examine student and professorial goals and outline methods for integrating goal attainment with institutional structures and practices.