Home Business of Education When an Acorn Hits You in the Head, Make Sure You Know How Many Oak Trees Are Around
When an Acorn Hits You in the Head, Make Sure You Know How Many Oak Trees Are Around

When an Acorn Hits You in the Head, Make Sure You Know How Many Oak Trees Are Around

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Many of us know the children’s story about the hen who is hit in the head by a falling acorn and runs around yelling, “the sky is falling.” She convinces more and more animals to join her to tell the king including the fox who convinces her and her companions that he knows a shortcut to the king. As we all know, the fox takes them to his burrow and kills them all except the hen who forgets about her mission as she escapes the burrow. The moral of the story is that you can be so focused on the wrong thing that you ignore that there is a dangerous person in your midst, ready to take advantage of you.

I feel that way about much of the data that is gathered and reported by many sources in higher education. Many of our policymakers, higher ed reporters, and even administrators and faculty members appear to assume that every college and university should have the same retention and graduation rates as the four-year residential schools that educate our brightest and best students moving from high school to college. Somehow the news has failed to reach them that those students comprise less than 25 percent of all students enrolled in college.

The College Scorecard is another data source that some cite respectfully as the source indicating that not all schools or programs equally provide an ROI to their graduates. Based on the data included, that’s true. However, the Scorecard does not include data from students who do not borrow. In the most recent Texas Higher Education Almanac 57.2 percent of its public institution graduates do not have debt. Assuming many other states are similar, that’s a lot of data from many students for The College Scorecard to exclude. Nonetheless, the policymakers, journalist, and others continue to cite date pulled from The Scorecard as if it represents truth and reality.

What is reality? You must drill down to each institution to find out. Some institutions serve traditional (18-24 y.o., full-time) students only. At some of those institutions, less than half of all graduates borrow money to cover their college costs (like Texas) and at other institutions, more than 80 percent of students borrow money. Other schools serve a non-traditional population whose students work full-time and attend school part-time, taking longer to graduate than the norms. Oddly, the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t collect earnings data for students that don’t borrow, so that data is unavailable to be merged with the earnings data for the students who borrow.

There are some states (Virginia and Texas) that have collected data from their labor departments that report earnings data for all college graduates. When you dive into the details, “all” college graduates exclude college graduates who move out of state, who work in state for out of state employers or who work for the federal government. Depending on the city or county in that state, those graduates could exceed 50 percent as well.

Is this a lecture or a rant? It is both. Anyone familiar with statistics knows that averages can be misleading. Averages are even more misleading when the dataset does not include all data available. If the College Scorecard is to be our “go-to” consumer reporting tool, it needs to include all the data from all students and graduates. If it doesn’t or won’t collect all pertinent data, there need to be large, viewable asterisks or footnotes that warn the reader that the data is not inclusive and may be misleading. Colleges should be allowed to append explanations as well as provide links to additional sources. Our K-20 education system has many problems to solve. Proposed solutions that do not look at the higher education ecosystem equitably are problematic.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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