Gallup released a survey today probing the various and sundry opinions of some 889 college and university presidents about the state of higher ed, and a few of their results have left me at a complete loss. Specifically, I’m talking the responses charted out below, asking how important employment outcomes, graduation rates, and cost are to the overall quality of an institution.
The good news is that an overwhelming majority think jobs and completion are at least somewhat important. The bad news? Fewer than two thirds think either counts as “very important.” To which I can only ask: If those aren’t tops on your priority list right now, what the hell is?
Meanwhile, more than a fifth don’t seem to think that cost factors much into the quality calculation, which is a view I can sort of imagine a sentient creature defending in 1997 when everybody thought the stock market was a magical fount of retirement money and the internet was going end unemployment. But at time when half the country seems convinced that everybody under the age of thirty is about to burned alive on a giant pyre of student debt, it’s tad tone deaf. According to Gallup, 77 percent of Americans think colleges need to cut tuition. Every single college is going to be judged via a cost-benefit analysis. This is not complicated. It should be understood by now.
Now, perhaps I’m being hypercritical. Perhaps the 37 percent who think graduation rates are only “somewhat” important when determining whether a college is any good are trying to take the sort of painfully nuanced view their fellow denizens of academia would expect. Gallup’s survey includes presidents from community colleges, four-year public schools, private non-profit institutions, and for-profit operations. And unfortunately, it doesn’t break down response rates by type. So it’s possible, for instance, that community college presidents, whose institutions deal with a population of marginal students who often have great difficulty finishing their degrees for reasons that have little to do with school they attend, decided completion only fell into the “somewhat important” category. And maybe a lot of presidents think the job market is such a wildly twisted wreck that it’s unfair to hold their college entirely responsible for how their grads fare in it, which right or not, at least has a certain logic.
But, seriously? Is this really that tricky? Even if they’re just vague aspirations, all three of these things should be at the top of every college’s agenda, even if administrators believe in their heart of hearts there are equally important measures of success. And I mean every. Just because something is hard to accomplish — say, making sure poor, under-prepared kids graduate — doesn’t mean it isn’t of the utmost importance.
Jordan Weissmann is an associate editor at The Atlantic. He has written for a number of publications, including The Washington Post and The National Law Journal