The infographic I’ve included in this story should trouble any college student looking for work after graduation. I took this from Rowan College Portfolio, a company that I interviewed today. It’s an online business that uses assessment tools to help students make better choices in higher ed so that they can work when they graduate. I talked with Rick O’Donnell, founder.
Here’s an example of how this works: engineering companies, or companies that employ scientists graduating from colleges known for good training programs, also want to make sure they are hiring those same engineers and scientists that are well-rounded. Rowan College Portfolio helps deliver “added value” to the employer by ensuring that when that student goes through his or her course of study, they are also picking up the office, interpersonal and life skills they need to be a powerful employee. And you can see how this will be beneficial to kids.
So, I talked to O’Donnell and this is what he said — my notes and questions below:
First, a simple and brief look at your background. You founded Rowan College Portfolio, but before that, what did you do?
He was once education policy director for former Governor of Colorado, Bill Owens.
“I spearheaded reform efforts, converting low-performing schools, assessments in all the grades; this was pre-NCLB. Later, I served as head of higher education for the State of Colorado.
Where does the idea of creating a value-add portfolio for every student come from?
O’Donnell said that the impetus for the portfolio idea was a series of questions he asked when looking at whether colleges really lived up to their role in creating a valuable experience for soon-to-be graduates. He also said the original idea was to offer this in the form of merit badges that students would collect as they were assessed in each course of study.
It began with this question of how do you measure colleges and add value? There was some doubt about how accreditation measures value, it only focuses on inputs, and doesn’t look at outputs. How do you measure and how do you know value is being added? Are students and parents getting their money’s worth out of an increasingly more expensive endeavor? How can we reform accreditation and how do you fix accreditation? Employers keep saying, ‘We are not getting, x, y and z out of these universities.’
And marketing and growing to scale? You said that you are right now pitching this in beta to the students at Texas A&M. How do you see this playing out?
This is the beta release. We are targeting Texas A&M, and we are being very intentional about scaling it. We have not done any official marketing outside of that. Additional students have signed up and we’ll probably take them in.
If we are able to get a lot of traction, I think it really puts employers in the drivers seat in terms of setting standards. Right now, it’s set by the institution and the faculty.
The interesting point here is that when referencing the connections to academia, O’Donnell pointed out that part of solving the business problem of adding value is that some faculty really are tied into business thinking, and the business community. Some are not.
There is some mix of value there, with some connections being strong, and some being not so strong. Students can almost use this as a map. They can see what they really need to take as they go, to see a way to acquire things they can use to prove their worthiness [in the working world].
So, when you talked to the business community, I imagine they gave you some ideas that made this portfolio system have more rigor. What were they telling you about the students and their connection to what was needed?
We went back and looked at 45 to 50 international and national studies about expectations of four year graduates. There was at least a 90 percent overlap of what they expected and what they are not getting. They were saying, ‘We need graduates who are better writers, who have better critical thinking skills; we need graduates with better leadership skills; we need them with better interpersonal skills.’ Then there was a sense of the degree as proxy for quality. The truth of it is, it is not a very good proxy anymore. Does a 3.5 GPA in marketing from a prestigious school vs a 3.6 GPA in marketing in another school, vs. 4.0 in communications from a university you never heard of mean anything? What’s the difference? Its really hard to judge the quality of degree institution by institution. You are relying on reputation, and the employers are saying that the reputation is not living up to itself.
And how does all of this really work? Is it tied directly into the offerings at the school, or is it more general than that in assessments?
It’s 15 weeks, with a mentor. And it’s using the best practices of online learning. We could have first beta group to have done in fifteen weeks. We will know how they score and finish and they can look at the results. Some students will see they are not at the level they want to be at.
Here’s a related story in the New York Times about taking courses in entrepreneurship to differentiate yourself from other resume senders.