Centering Student Outcomes, A Simple Yet Radical Mission

Students should be at the center of our higher education system.

It’s a simple sentence, not even a very long one at that, yet there is a profound and radical sentiment in that brevity.

Students should be at the center of our higher education system.

Because the truth is, students aren’t at the center of the system. We’ve long had an education system that focused on institutions and stressed student preparedness. In other words, college-ready students rather than student-ready colleges. That means we force students to bear the burden for their postsecondary outcomes. An unsuccessful outcome implicates their choice of school, how hard they worked, or how much they sacrificed.

The result of such a system is that about 30 million American adults have some college experience but no degree. Obstacles forced them to take the off-ramps. That was the last thing those students sought when they started down their path to learning beyond high school.

We know how to fix this. We must move away from a system centered on institutions and organized around time spent in classrooms toward a system focused on equitable, affordable high-quality learning for all students. To make this happen, every stakeholder must contribute and collaborate.

Federal policymakers are one such stakeholder, and it’s encouraging to see student outcomes as a focus of the ongoing process to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Last week the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment held a hearing on how to improve student outcomes in higher education. In her opening remarks, subcommittee chairwoman Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) said this:

Congress has a responsibility to ensure that today’s college students have the support they need to make it to graduation day. Otherwise, we will continue to leave far too many students without a degree, struggling with student loans they can’t repay. In many cases, this burden and the emotional toll of not having completed college can set students further back than when they enrolled.

We cannot sit idly while, every day, students across the country are forced to choose between their degree, their income, their children, and their health.

Truly, we cannot sit idly by if we are committed to building a just and fair universal postsecondary learning system that offers all Americans the opportunity for a better life. Federal policy can help create this system by offering incentives that make quality student outcomes as much a priority as enrollment increases.  Policies should reflect the needs and characteristics of today’s students and be responsive to the rapidly changing technological and workforce environments they face.

Federal quality assurance should focus on student success and reward schools that pay close attention to their needs. This new approach must be built on: educational outcomes, especially among students of color; development of employability skills among graduates, and finally, timely data on the institutions’ finances and governance.

Better data are needed, too. To achieve a student-centered, outcomes-focused system that recognizes learning wherever and however it occurs, we need data on students as we follow their paths to graduation and beyond. In doing so, we can build on what is working and correct what is not.

It’s worth repeating. Students should be at the center of our higher education system. Though the sentiment is simple, making it happen is the toughest challenge of our lifetime. But it’s also our most vital and profound mission.