May 20, 2012
by President Catharine Bond Hill
We’re here today to celebrate the achievements of the members of the Vassar Class of 2012. In particular it will soon be my honor to hand each graduate his or her diploma as confirmation of the successful completion of the requirements of the degree of Bachelor of Arts. A fair question is: What does this diploma represent? It is particularly a fair question for the families of the graduates – at once rightfully proud and joyful, but also perhaps a bit uncertain as to whether the time, effort and expense can be judged to have been worthwhile. Perhaps some students are a bit uncertain as well. But I hope not many, nor should you be.
On one level, the answer to the question of what the diploma represents is different for each individual. We refer to each of you graduating today and the tens of thousands of Vassar graduates who have preceded you, as having received a "Vassar Education", as though somehow that’s a single thing. Not since the very early days of the college could one imagine that any two of the tens of thousands of graduates have taken the identical set of courses. Each of your educational experiences has been unique. No two "Vassar educations" are alike.
Some approach the question of what the diploma represents by judging the adequacy of the educational experience according to specific criteria. Those criteria have taken different forms.
One form is used by those who want to say that no education can be considered complete unless the program includes specific areas of study, even very specific subject matter. Often the groups advocating this approach have their own agendas linked to a particular educational philosophy or political point of view. For them, Vassar's open curriculum is seen as our failing to have ensured that graduates have been "well educated" – at least according to their criteria. That you chose Vassar and that the faculty behind me have established and endorse our open curriculum is more than adequate evidence that few here today would want to have Vassar be more prescriptive than we are in terms of curricular requirements.
Another means some advocate for judging the adequacy of an education is to establish assessment criteria – usually meaning "outcomes assessment." The argument there is that it’s not enough for educational institutions to claim that they have provided an education of high quality, but they should be able to demonstrate that quality by objective criteria measuring how the program of study has accomplished certain goals. The most straightforward means of doing so would be to test every student entering college and test again at the time of graduation. Such an exam would have to be very general to accommodate the wide range of majors and programs of study taken by students – not just at Vassar, but at any college. Such exams would, I suspect, provide very little information about the effectiveness of a Vassar education, even judged in this way. If nothing else, the high selectivity of admission to Vassar means you arrived already testing at a high percentile on standardized exams, so there would be little space at the top to move higher. Such an exam just wouldn’t prove much.
Of course, you have been assessed more or less constantly for the past four years, including as recently as Tuesday, the last day of exams for some of you. Every course has work that is evaluated and your transcripts are the record of how that work has been judged. Seen from the inside of the college, the assessment movement is sometimes hard to understand, and hard not to be seen as devaluing the assessment that already is an integral part of our educational enterprise.
A third approach to judging the worth of your diploma has recently made a lot of news. That approach is to look at the employment and earnings experience of recent college graduates. A study by the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University does just that in a report titled "College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings: Not All College Degrees are Created Equal." The report begins with the following statement:
"The question, as we slowly dig out from under the wreckage left by the Great Recession, is unavoidable: 'Is college worth it?' The report’s answer: 'Yes, extensive research, ours included, finds that a college degree is still worth it.' A Bachelor's degree is one of the best weapons a job seeker can wield in the fight for employment and earnings."
It’s tempting to recommend that one stop reading there. But the purpose of the study was to compile the different employment and earnings results for different majors, and it was those differences that have been picked up by the media – most notably by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni about a month ago. What the data actually show does make for some interesting reading, but the interpretation of it as saying that one's major determines one's economic destiny, is an exaggeration at best. It's no surprise that on average, doctors and lawyers make more money than social workers or schoolteachers, but the path to law school or even medical school is not limited by major, as Vassar graduates demonstrate regularly, if that is their goal. And to judge an individual's success or satisfaction purely by these economic criteria is to ignore, even to insult, the foundational ideals of a liberal arts education and the life choices made by our graduates.
That sense of outrage was fully on display in the exchange of letters published in the New York Times two weeks ago in response to Bruni’s column. Writers took particular exception to the narrowness of using economic measures to judge the value of an education, and not just for humanities majors and for a liberal arts education more generally. Even in practical terms, education that trains for a particular job may result in immediate employment, but fails to prepare one to adapt to change or to take advantage of new opportunities in the way that a broad liberal arts education does. And promoting a liberal arts education solely on the basis of its practicality is to fail to recognize its value as an education that enables one to appreciate ideas for their own sake and thereby to live a creative and fulfilling life. At Vassar, we prepare students for that life, not only in the classroom, but through their engaged participation in a residential campus community where they’re given the opportunity to participate in organizations and activities, and challenged to find ways to understand and appreciate different backgrounds and points of view.
But let me go back to the more specific question as to what a Vassar diploma represents. How can we characterize a "Vassar education"? We have, in fact, a very interesting and enlightening answer – an answer that grew out of the assessment challenge – an answer that attempted to go beyond the usual categories of departments, disciplines, and divisions in categorizing educational breadth. Four years ago the faculty challenged themselves to identify, in addition to the subject matter of each of their courses, what outcomes and skills a student would take from the course that they considered important. The list was then reduced to a set of 13 such valued outcomes and skills. That all sounds a little abstract, so let me read for you from the list. As I do so, I ask you to keep in mind some of the criteria others have used for judging the worth of a diploma – including the most practical criteria such as its effectiveness in finding employment and building a career. But also keep in mind the less quantifiable criteria that enable one to live a creative and personally fulfilling life. Graduates, as you listen to the items on the list, think about which were important in one or more of the courses you took. Here they are:
- Think about problems and issues for which there are complex, ambiguous, or contradictory answers.
- Conduct original independent research using primary sources.
- Learn the discipline of close and sustained attention required for the full appreciation of a work of art.
- Apply scientific methods to an inquiry.
- Recognize the limits of a given body of information in terms of reliability and validity.
- 6. Challenge received opinion and question claims of knowledge.
- Attempt to understand a culture different from one's own.
- Develop awareness of one's own subjectivity as it is formed by categories such as class, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or nationality.
- Construct a clear and persuasive argument in both written and oral form.
- Give and receive constructive criticism.
- Take a stand on a moral or ethical issue and engage with others who may be in disagreement with your position.
Demonstrate intellectual openness and cultivate a capacity to respond to others' points of view.
- Make valid connections among different disciplines or distinct bodies of knowledge.
I hope that makes the idea of the study less abstract. And I hope you agree that these provide an enlightened way to think about the purpose and means of becoming educated – and educated in the highest sense of that word. But what does it tell us about the education a Vassar student actually experiences? How many of these aspects of an education have you been exposed to in a curriculum where you have had so much freedom to choose your own programs of study?
Here’s the answer for the year the study was done. After the list was established, faculty were asked to look at each of their courses and choose at most three of the 13 outcomes or skills as being a central feature of that course. This was referred to at the “course tagging exercise.” Once the tagging was done, we looked at the transcripts of every graduating student to see the distribution of the 13 aspects in the courses they took.
The results were impressive.
A quarter of the class had taken courses that exposed them to all 13 outcomes and skills.
Two thirds had been exposed to at least 12 of them.
And 97% had been exposed to at least 10 of the 13.
I would argue that this gives us at least a partial answer to the question of what your diploma represents today. It represents an education that has provided you with specific skills of analysis and expression. It has also challenged you to think in ways that cut across disciplines, that recognize and appreciate complexity and ambiguity, and that enable you to learn from and contribute to the lives of others.
You take with you today the uniqueness of the set of courses on your transcript, but you take with you as well the shared identity as a Vassar graduate and these shared aspects of what today’s diploma represents. Truly you have received a “Vassar education.”
Congratulations, and thank you!