The Communicative Role of Assessment in Demonstrating the Utility of Liberal Arts in Comprehensive Regional Universities

D. Kent Johnson, PhD., Director of Assessment

“The often forgotten role of assessment as communication might be among the most important for the preservation of the comprehensive mission of IPFW and is one that we fully control.  It is also intentionally designed into our assessment strategy.”

Matthew Sigelman (CEO of Burning Glass Technologies) argued in an essay published by Inside Higher Education that the debate over liberal arts versus vocationalism is lazy.  He states, “…liberal arts majors are not as badly prepared as people fear – and graduates with other majors may be less prepared than they believe.”  This statement is probably not very provocative for higher education faculty as we are accustomed to touting the American Baccalaureate degree and its unique blending of liberal, general, and specialized knowledge as a primary strength of undergraduate education.  However, communicating this story to external constituents – especially legislators, potential employers, and prospective students and their families is not a strength of most higher education institutions.

Effectively communicating what students know and can do as a result of their education (especially for students graduating in majors that skew more to the liberal arts than vocation or profession) is especially important in the current political and social environment for public comprehensive universities.  This new environment is, perhaps, best defined in a 2002 statement by North Carolina Governor, Pat McCrory, who stated in an interview with Bill Bennett:

“So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt,” McCrory said, adding, “What are we teaching these courses for if they’re not going to help get a job.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/03/pat-mccrory-college_n_2600579.html)

McCrory’s statement is specifically positioned to drive the idea of utility or vocationalism as the determinant of public higher education funding.  But, if taken at its face as a curriculum aligned “…to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs…” this perception of utility to meet the market demand is incomplete.  Mr. Sigelman states (based on his company’s analysis of the skills employers value most and are most difficult to find) that “Across the full spectrum of jobs, what employers seem to call for, above all else, are foundational skills like writing, research, analysis, critical thinking, and creativity” (https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/02/08/debate-over-liberal-arts-vs-vocationalism-lazy-one-essay).  These are the same skills liberal arts faculty tout as hallmarks of students completing their degrees.  Therefore, an opportunity exists to demonstrate the value of liberal education from an employment perspective through the communication of assessment findings to external constituents.  For this reason, the IPFW Annual Assessment Report asks departments to describe how they are communicating what students know and can do to external constituents.

Helping students describe what they know and can do to prospective employers is something many faculty do.  For example, Andy Downs has discussed how he encourages students to list the skills they have to help prospective employers understand the value of hiring a student with a degree in political science.  However, at the program, college, and university levels, data driven communications that are grounded in high quality and rigorous assessment to promote the quality of our graduates as measured by achievement of student learning outcomes has the potential to demonstrate that the knowledge and skills employers demand (e.g. writing, research, analysis, critical thinking, and creativity) are available through graduates across a range of majors.  The often forgotten role of assessment as communication might be among the most important for the preservation of the comprehensive mission of IPFW and is one that we fully control.  It is also intentionally designed into our assessment strategy.

Carefully constructed and executed, summative aspects of programmatic assessment of student learning forms the type of evidential foundation employers desire to understand how graduates of a program are prepared to contribute to the success of the organizations employing our graduates. Formative programmatic assessment builds on this foundation to inform departments and programs how student learning relative to the stated outcomes might be further enhanced through curricular interventions and innovations.  As this type of assessment is shared with external constituents it serves the valuable role of demonstrating institutional commitment to ensuring that current and future graduates are prepared to meet the increasingly challenging needs of future employers.