The wrong measure of success in universities

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It’s time to retire an irresponsible numbers game by which the success of a state university is supposed to be measured.

What do I mean by that? Take the four-year, and even six-year, degree completion rates that legislators want to use to gauge the California State University.

Last year, such measures via Assembly Bill 94 were signed into law by a governor who believes that more “efficiency” in the system can be achieved principally by turning to Silicon Valley fantasy solutions using online courses – those that have failed dismally too often (if you look at those numbers).

The law now says that we are to be measured by how quickly and how efficiently we move students through the system. Not how well – which is harder to measure.

Old-school factory efficiency measures conjure up more than one episode of “I Love Lucy” when she was on a crazy conveyor belt “processing” chocolates or, perhaps more relevant for California, stomping grapes in a vineyard.

Have the governor and legislators been watching too many reruns?

Today’s students cannot necessarily take a “full” load of courses and graduate “on time.” Anyway, as anyone who has taken Physics 101 would remind us, time is a relative concept. Now that the state no longer bears most college costs, students find themselves working 20 or 30 hours and more a week, just to keep up with the cost of living, let alone the costs of tuition, books, commuting or dorm rooms.

I don’t notice that my students are malingering on our campus for six or more years, whiling away their time, basket weaving.

Rather, many of them take the minimum course load to qualify for the financial aid they desperately need to continue to go to school, while working to support themselves, and in many cases, their families.

I wish I could say that my students are “loafing and inviting [their] soul[s]” as the great populist poet Walt Whitman would have it in his utopia. But there’s little loafing or Frisbee playing on our great lawns. Even the skateboarders I see on campus seem to be dashing somewhere.

I fear we are creating a system in which the young and the relatively young, instead of taking the time to assess their goals, dreams and passions, are being urged to check off their college experiences as one item on a bucket list.

Meanwhile, those of us teaching them are asked to focus more and more on the expiration dates by which they should be “finished” before they sour or rot on a shelf.

“Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire,” a quotation misattributed to another great poet, William Butler Yeats, is actually something I’ve heard our governor intone.

Yet when he and other government officials start measuring achievement by the numbers, they may as well be back in the 19th century, not 2014, when our mission is to broaden access to student populations who do not have the real luxury – and it is a luxury – of the four-year degree.

That more and more of our students are achieving degrees in six years, and sometimes more, is something of which they, their families and we, their faculty, are immensely proud.

Such achievement is immeasurable.

Author Bio: Susan Gubernat, a professor of English at Cal State East Bay, is secretary of the CSU Academic Senate.

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