Education Is Certainly a System So Why Don’t We Measure Student Satisfaction?

This morning there was a great article from MPR reporter Tom Robertson that touched on how the elimination of shop class in high schools is seen as a contributor to decline in skilled manufacturing candidate across the state.  “Worker skills shortage starts in high school” parallels a book that I had read a few months back from Matthew Crawford titled Shop Class as Soul Craft.  In his book Crawford asks us to examine the intent and outcomes of our fervent battle cry for all kids to go to college and to become part of the information economy rather than becoming makers, builders, and fixers.

Like so many things in life education is just another example of a system (systems thinking).  Apply pressure on one side of the system and watch the other side atrophy.  Tell everyone that we MUST move to an information economy and naturally we will adjust resources to support that goal.  A great example of this from Crawford’s book is how many high schools in the United States have pulled out their shop classes to make way for computer labs.  Yet we wonder why we don’t have enough qualified candidates to run manufacturing equipment in this country (Forbes Article)?  The bigger question is does everyone really want to (or need to) go to college?  The same rational and resourcing happens in higher education when we swing our attention in one direction and we ignore or neglect other things.  Recently the importance and measurement of graduation rates has caught the public’s attention.

What I struggle with is how we have selected the graduation rate as one of our primary goals for higher education.  In my retail experience we would say that our goal is to strive to have happy customers who love to buy “things” from us.  To measure happy customers we would suggest that we want to survey our customers to determine if they are happy.  The standard measurement tool for customer happiness is the Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI).  The challenge with this is that most retailer quickly find that it is very time consuming and expensive to continually measure our customers’ satisfaction.  So instead we look for something that is easier to capture and calculate, like sales revenue, units per transaction, basket revenue, etc.  The problem is that there may be a correlation with these numbers and customer satisfaction but it can be far from perfect.  In fact, the reality can be that we are just selling the customer more stuff that is also more expensive but that they don’t really want or need.

I think we run the same risk when we try to measure the performance of higher education through graduation rates rather than student satisfaction.  It might be the case that some kids who would have thrived in community college end up at the university and hate it.  They drop out and we chalk it up as a “failure” instead of solving their problem and getting them into the right education environment.  Here is where my passion for better understanding failure comes in.  We need to get over our fear and the negative stigma associated with trying something and failing at it.  We should all try to fail at something periodically because it helps us define those things that we “can do” and then map them to the things that we like to do.  My personal example is that I failed at calculus in my freshman year of college.  But that failure forced me to determine what I really wanted to do and it required me to adjust the path that I was going to take to get there.  Some might have failed and decided that college wasn’t what they wanted to do, and that needs to be acceptable too.

Or maybe it wasn’t failure but opportunity that pushes a student to drop out.  Bill Gates had dropped out of college because he saw a better opportunity in leaving school at that time.  If we ask these students who chose to drop out to become entrepreneurs how satisfied they were they might have been reasonably satisfied but it simply wasn’t right for them at the time.  Perhaps we should instead be encouraging these individuals to pursue their ideas and explain to them how they can return to school when (or if) they decide to?  How different might the world be if Steve Jobs hadn’t decided to drop our of Reed College?

In no uncertain terms measuring “student satisfaction” would absolutely be more difficult and more costly than measuring graduation rate but it gets us a lot closer to our true goal of preparing students for the their next stage in life – whether that is blue collar, white collar, or as an entrepreneur.  One positive outcome of measuring satisfaction would be that it would draw our attention more quickly to difficulties students are having within the system.  If higher education administrators were measured on student satisfaction there would be a much stronger incentive to address the concerns of properly qualifying incoming students, continually rising tuition rates, and limited class availability.

When I hear legislators talk about increasing graduation rates or time to graduation I hear the same failings of the No Child Left Behind Program.  I suggest that we ask ourselves what are we really trying to measure?  If it is student satisfaction, I think of one of my fraternity brothers who ended up taking eight years to graduate while he worked his way through college.  Had they asked him at the time, I am certain he was one of the most “satisfied” students on campus.

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