06/21/2012 11:27 am ET Updated Aug 21, 2012

Colleges Should Measure What They Value

There is great unrest about higher education in America today. For the first time, many are seriously questioning the value of a college degree. With soaring tuition costs, rising student debt, and questionable outcomes in the job market, such unrest is understandable.

But there's something more fundamental to what's bothering us. To examine the value of a college degree, we must also examine how we measure educational outcomes. The key performance indicators we use as national measures of outcomes in higher education are woefully inadequate: GPA, degree attainment (or some derivative such as retention rates), and gainful employment are about the extent of the list. And we are struggling mightily to improve these measures.

But here's the real problem: even if we did improve these traditional measures dramatically, it wouldn't matter much because they are the wrong targets. We should be aiming much higher.

"We value what we measure rather than measuring what we value" is an expression commonly heard in education circles these days. It couldn't be more true. The things we truly hope to gain as a result of higher education aren't being measured. Some colleges and universities have started measuring constructs such as student engagement and critical thinking skills -- outcomes that many argue are closer to what we value. But they're still a long way from what really matters in terms of ultimate outcomes.

Here's a simple exercise that will help us appreciate how much we are missing the target right now. Think about how to answer the following questions. Which is the more important outcome?

1. A.) Acquiring knowledge or
B.) Improving critical thinking

2. A.) Getting a job or
B.) Getting a job you love

3) A) A graduate who gets a job or
B.) A graduate who creates jobs for others

4. A.) A good job or
B.) A good life

5. A.) A good life or
B.) A good society

The vast majority of us would answer B's across the board. Critical thinking is considered more important than simply mastering a subject, because it enables you to apply that knowledge to solve issues, pioneer new knowledge, or produce something tangible. Getting a job is certainly important, but what matters in the long term is whether it's a job you love -- where there's a match between what you do best and what you do daily in that job. A graduate who gets a job is certainly a productive member of society and a wage earner for his or her family, but a graduate who is an entrepreneur who builds a company and creates dozens, hundreds, or thousands of jobs makes an immense contribution to our economy. Getting a good job is linked to having a good life, but a good life is one of the ultimate goals of a human being. And you can take that one step further and say that a good society, which certainly has to consist of individuals who have good lives, is the ultimate ideal outcome for humankind.

Aside from a hint of measurement of critical thinking, we are not currently measuring any of the most valued outcomes of an education. We're not measuring how many graduates get a job they love. We're not measuring the economic energy and entrepreneurship of our students and graduates. We're not measuring whether they have good lives or whether they are making contributions to better society. These outcomes are certainly being accomplished, but by how many and to what degree? We just don't have a clue. But we'd better get one fast.

The answer won't be found in running faster and harder toward the targets currently in front of us. And it won't be found in a new government standard or ranking system. We have to aim higher, for a wholly different -- and much more meaningful -- set of outcomes. They may be harder to measure than the ones we have now. But that's no excuse. Colleges and universities everywhere can measure these outcomes now, and if we want to defend the value of higher education, we must measure them.