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What We Value

February 19, 2013

(Mark Rosenman is an emeritus professor at the Union Institute & University and directs Caring to Change, an initiative that seeks to improve how foundations serve the public. In his last post, he wrote about accountability -- or the lack thereof -- in government, business, and the nonprofit sector.)

Rosenman_headshotIn his State of the Union address, President Obama called for government-provided student financial aid to somehow be tied to the value of the education which it helps underwrite. While it's an interesting idea, it presents a challenge not only to institutions of higher education, but to every nonprofit organization in the country. Put simply, who gets to measure the value of any charitable program? Who gets to stipulate their purposes and assess their performance and the outcomes they deliver?

Although such data are not readily available, we know that the White House believes that how well a particular college or university's graduates do in the job market after graduation ought to be a part of a "college scorecard." We also know that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who gave the Republican rebuttal to the president's State of the Union address, feels even more strongly about the idea and has joined with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to push The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which requires colleges and universities to provide detailed information to prospective students about how much one can expect to make in any given field post-graduation.

Given the state of the economy and students' understandable concerns about their futures, that makes a lot of sense, practically and politically. But should that be the principal measure of the value of higher education? When did we decide that the value of an associate's, bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree should be quantified and measured in vocational education terms? And who decided it?

Most of us can agree that the purpose and function of higher education is to do more than just develop the knowledge and skills needed for graduates to achieve economic success. We look to our colleges and universities to build character and cultivate moral judgment, to teach students about their responsibilities as citizens of our democracy and engage them in community life, to help develop the kind of open-minded and empathetic individuals we all want as neighbors and fellow citizens. In short, higher education is about more than vocational education, even when it's in preparation for an elite profession.

Yes, higher education has a role in making the American Dream a reality, and it is essential to our notions of meritocracy and upward mobility. Most of us take to heart the assertion that a college degree is the surest path out of poverty and into a life better than those of our parents. Yet as the New York Times noted a number of years ago, "At the most selective private universities across the country, more fathers [sic] of freshmen are doctors than are hourly workers, teachers, clergy members, farmers or members of the military -- combined."

As President Obama himself suggested in his 2012 State of the Union address, we know colleges and universities are failing to level the economic playing field for a majority of Americans. Indeed, according to a College Board study, students with high college-entrance exam scores from low-income families are less likely to complete college than those with lower scores from more affluent families. The Education Trust also found that only five of some twelve hundred institutions of higher education in the U.S. were doing a good job of serving low-income students who matriculated.

Does the administration's "college scorecard" even begin to capture what it means to prepare young men and women for productive, meaningful lives? And shouldn't it also reflect whether and how well each college and university is advancing economic equity in society?

Such shortcomings in reflecting organizations' purposes and functions can be seen across the nonprofit sector. In the rush to assess performance, measure outcomes, and be more "accountable" to donors and funders, vital elements of many nonprofits' missions are given short shrift. This despite the fact that charitable groups often seek (and are expected) to provide goods or services in situations -- health care, education, land conservation, and so on -- where the market has failed.

Nonprofits also often work to avert problems before they require remedial intervention and to build individual capacity and community vitality so that fewer government- and charitably-funded services are needed in the long run. They contribute to the strengthening of our democracy and to increased civic and social capital. They inform the development of better policy and public program implementation, resulting in a better quality of life for all of us.

Alas, these kinds of things often are unacknowledged, let alone measured, when assessing the value of services provided by nonprofits. And because of these omissions, they increasingly are ignored by politicians, funders, and others who are keeping score, sometimes even by nonprofits themselves.

This must change. As a society, we tend to make economic calculations in very short timeframes -- daily, quarterly, annually. Maybe it's because we're Americans, always on the move, but we have little patience for long-term investments that favor the common good over narrowly defined short-term payouts. But unless and until the full scope of nonprofits' value to society is included in our assessment and evaluation schemes, all but the most basic functions of the sector will be discounted and marginalized.

From higher education to medical research, daycare and recreational opportunities to culture and the arts, all will be subject to a brutal economic calculus: Is the "commodity" produced by the organization worth the cost? Were we to pursue such a path, broader social benefits and the common good eventually would fade from practice and our collective value system.

Which brings me back to where I started. How do we assess the value of higher education? Do the schemes floating around the White House and Congress even consider what it means to develop good citizens and good neighbors? How do we assign value to the splendid wonder of someone pulling him or herself out of poverty compared to someone who benefits from a stable family structure, unlimited resources, and powerful economic and social networks?

What is the worth to society of a strong, evidence-based belief in the validity and legitimacy of the American Dream? Doesn't that benefit all of us?

If we care about such things -- as foundations, individual donors, and government must -- we need to accord them the value they deserve and make sure that any college or nonprofit scorecard goes beyond individual profit to include measures of broad social benefit. Failure to build that into our calculus will make us all poorer over the long term.

-- Mark Rosenman

Comments

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Hi Mark.

Reading a lot of this, I can't help but tie it in to the Occupy protests. A large segment of them were initially driven by students who went into deep debt to get their degrees, only to find that a lot of them were not valued very highly in economic ROI terms. So there is some validity to those proposals, at least from that angle, though why it requires govt. intervention as opposed to people applying common sense is beyond me. I'd also like to mention that there is a growing sense that "not everyone has to go to college" - the theory that our over-valuing college degrees has seriously devalued vocational and practical work. There's something to that.

PS- One of these days I'd love to see your take on the inequality of these educational institutions and their obscenely large (and growing) endowments....talk about inequality!

Hi, David. Glad you're still taking the time to read and comment on my occasional pieces.

While I don't see the direct relationship to the Occupy movement, I can easily understand popular disenchantment with the economy and with the outrageous problem of student debt. Clearly, costs have gotten out of hand.

All of us need to be asking questions about the ROI on personal and governmental expenditures. And I agree with individual college graduates, President Obama, Senators Rubio and Wyden, and you that a direct economic return should be an important part of any such an equation.

What I've argued, and I hope you'd agree, is that any calculation or scoring of the ROI must include societal benefits as well as personal profit. This, I think, is particularly true when a validation of meritocracy, contributions to equity, and a legitimation of the American Dream are at issue.

Mark

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