Magazine article University Business

Fear of Data: A Warning to CIC Members to Make Peace with Data-Or Suffer the Consequences

Magazine article University Business

Fear of Data: A Warning to CIC Members to Make Peace with Data-Or Suffer the Consequences

Article excerpt

PRIOR TO THE MID-20TH CENTURY, A PERSON WHO WANTED TO clinch an argument needed only to reference a pertinent quotation from an authority. Politicians of the day cited Jefferson and Lincoln, white academics frequently cited Aristotle. Now, those who wish to win arguments often cite numbers, not rhetoric--as if to suggest, for example, that because 58 percent of voters feel one way about an issue, the remaining 42 percent ought to feet the same way.

We in higher education also have become more inclined to track a phenomenon through statistics, to argue that a past trend is a vector for the future. We have become adept at collecting some kinds of data, such as demographic projections, which have been particularly useful when combined with the actual patterns of student enrollment--by race and gender, fulltime versus part-time, or family income level. Our records of students' academic performance are also usually meticulous and complete.

But analysts who try to use these records in combination with information about students' nonacademic activities during their cortege years and beyond graduation have a more difficult time. The record-keeping systems on our campuses are rarely sustaining ambitious, longitudinal studies.

Increasingly, they will need to be. We cannot dismiss the crude measures of accountability that some in Congress wish to impose on colleges and universities, for there is no denying the sober intent with which Congress, many state governments, and an array of private organizations are questioning the effectiveness of corteges and universities and inventing methods to rate and rank them.

Instead, we should welcome the better efforts to use data to illuminate the circumstances and achievements of colleges and universities. Such information can both enhance institutional decisionmaking and build a case for the effectiveness of private institutions.

One diagnostic toot of particular utility is the National Survey of Student Engagement (www.iub.edu/~nsse). Although not perfect, it is a helpful device to gauge the validity of our rhetoric about educational effectiveness. Because NSSE keeps its results confidential, individual colleges that score welt will brag about their scores, while those that score badly remain silent.

Many other cogent uses of data to assess institutional effectiveness exist. For the stark truth about the connections between academic performance and participation in intercollegiate athletics at certain colleges and universities, the work done by William G. Bowen and his colleagues (www.mellon.org) has been unflinching, revealing, and largely counterintuitive. And a new diagnostic tool, RAND's Collegiate Learning Assessment, is also a promising device for measuring how much cognitive growth takes place during the cortege years, on average, for students of a college or university. …

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