February 16, 2018

Quantifying the Value of Higher Education | From the Bell Tower

It’s unfortunate that some folks are already planning for the demise of the college library. After all, once all books are electronic within the next five years, according to this article, colleges will be able to repurpose the library building for something altogether different, perhaps as subsidized housing for poor adjuncts. This author may just be having a little fun with the “bookless library” talk that’s going around, thanks to articles like this one. At least, I hope that was the case. Most of these articles are probably written by uninformed freelance authors who never bother to actually visit a college library or talk to an academic librarian.

More than books—but what?
What’s equally unfortunate is that these articles actually get read by the public, and based on the comments, John Q. Citizen just eats this stuff right up. No more books? Well, let’s get rid of the libraries then. None of this bodes well when our mission is increasingly geared to demonstrating the value of academic libraries. Getting past this myth that libraries equal books and nothing but books is a serious challenge. Before we can get anyone to recognize the value of academic libraries and librarians, it appears we first need to establish exactly what it is we do—besides warehouse books. Then we need to arrive at a simple way we can measure the value the academic library contributes to institutional success. ROI studies may prove useful, but the jury is still out on that effort. We need to continue to look elsewhere for good models for quantifying or demonstrating academic library value.

An innovative measure of value?
We have company in dealing with the value proposition problem. With all the talk about whether it even pays to attend college anymore, colleges and universities also feel pressure to demonstrate their true value. Accreditation is obviously essential, but insufficient these days to demonstrate quality or value. The current focus of that effort is to provide some quantitative measure of college success. Education Sector, an education think tank, believes it has identified a new way to measure higher education value by ranking colleges and universities on two variables: put simply, are students graduating, and are they doing so without enormous debt loads?

Its new report, titled “Debt to Degree: A New Way of Measuring College Success,” introduces the “borrowing-to-credential ratio (BCR).” The ratio takes the total amount of money borrowed by undergraduates at a single institution and then divides that sum by the total number of degrees awarded. That sounds simple, but how does it measure value—and give prospective students a way to make better college decision?

A new way to rank colleges
While it’s far from a perfect indicator, the BCR allows us to paint a picture of where in the higher education industry we can find value for students, when value means that as a student, I get a diploma in a reasonable number of years with the least amount of debt possible. We can also see trends. The report states that the average amount of student debt needed to produce a degree in America is increasing rapidly. In 2006-07, students borrowed $13,334 for every credential earned. In 2007-08, that amount rose to $14,560, a nine-percent increase. In 2008-09, it rose by another 24 percent to $18,102.

The data can also help with college decisions. While public institutions have lower BCRs than private colleges, the gap is less than one would expect. However—and this is a much contested finding—for-profit institutions have the highest BCR numbers of any sector.

Then there are the institutional rankings. Why is Rice University’s BCR so much lower than the University of Rochester’s? The report explains how other factors, such as location, quality of students and endowments can impact on the BCR. According to the report, Princeton offers great value. The graduates have relatively small loans and the graduation rates are high. Unfortunately few institutions can mirror Princeton’s endowment and selectivity. But that’s an extreme case. If you can start to find similar data for the many institutions in the middle, it could make a difference in judging value.

Some experts have pointed out flaws of the BCR methodology. Of course, not everyone agrees with the report’s findings, based on oversights, biases, and general inaccuracies (in fact, one of the report’s authors and a fellow Chronicle of Higher Education blogger are really going at each other over this).

Any help here for academic libraries?
The library literature does point to several efforts to apply quantitative analysis to determining library value. These are not unlike the BCR method of connecting two variables. For example, Elizabeth M. Mezick’s article “Return on Investment: Libraries and Student Retention” (Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33(5), 2007), established a significant relationship between expenditures per student on materials and staff and retention rates: spend more and get better results. You can see how administrators would be attracted to these types of input-output based metrics. While I wish it were as easy as coming up with a unique formula or ratio, as demonstrated by the BCR, I suspect that academic librarians will continue to struggle with the value proposition challenge.

There’s no harm in deploying ROI studies and traditional input-output measures. Those numbers do get the attention of academic administrators. But our best hope for establishing the value of our academic libraries may lie in long-term case studies of individual students. This approach, certainly more complex to organize and execute, would provide more direct evidence that library intervention keeps college students on the path to a diploma, and influences workplace success. I will be on the lookout for such efforts, whether quantitative or qualitative in nature.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.