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Ocean State Index

New ways of measuring higher education’s value proposition 
University Business, August 2017

This month we begin a trilogy of best value proposition case studies providing an inside look at how several institutions have developed more relevant ways of measuring value-added outcomes, quality of learning experience, and return on tuition investment. 

Typically, the college selection process for high school students is as routine as the senior prom, where students and parents eyeball traditional college ranking websites – like U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review, and Newsweek – with the objective of guiding and informing their college and university admissions choices. These traditional rankings purportedly provide a rationale for comparing potential institutions of interest based on a mix of qualitative and quantitative data. That said, college-bound families are getting wise to the traditional you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours ranking systems where elements such as “perceived reputation”, mega endowments, Division I Sports, and luxury resort amenities rule the day. 

In contrast to the brand dominance of these elite schools, the preponderance of smaller colleges across the Nation need to monetize student success outcomes that predict lifelong career success. Indeed, the riskiest course of action for these institutions is to be lulled into submission by relying on traditional rankings to define their competitiveness and sustainability.  

Founded in 1854 as the first public institution of higher learning in the State, Rhode Island College provides our first case study by identifying the most influential factors for determining net tuition ROL (Return on Learning). 

In the first chapter of our case study, we learned from President Frank Sanchez that Rhode Island College “has fully embraced its original value proposition as a beacon of hope, inviting talented, motivated and determined students, regardless of income, background or station in life, to receive a high-quality, high-value college degree.” Through development and testing, the Ocean State Index will allow the College to target and measure qualities like: experiential learning opportunities beyond the classroom, interactive teaching, and rigorous undergraduate research; social mobility; community and civic engagement; endowment ratio; intrusive advising and meaningful mentoring; net family debt burden; price point sensitivity; net return on tuition; workforce development; and economic impact.  

In contrast to traditional rankings, the Ocean State Index will focus on measuring independently verifiable metrics that identify the actual quality of the total teaching and learning experience. To its credit, Rhode Island College proceeds from a position of strength – having previously earned top-tier ranking in the Washington Monthly America’s Best Bang for the Buck Colleges.  

We learned from Rhode Island College that more than 70% of the College’s graduates live, work, and raise families in Rhode Island. For generations, Rhode Island College has prepared public servants of the State and powered the State’s economy by investing in the talents, dreams, and aspirations of its students, who ultimately contribute to the vibrant life, resiliency, and growth potential of the Ocean State. 

Having achieved success, Rhode Island College now faces the prospect of free community college – a megatrend which poses a new recruitment and admissions paradigm – and a special opportunity for Rhode Island College to objectively validate its Ocean State Index value proposition. In this way, prospective students and families can readily discern the concrete benefits and advantages of attending Rhode Island College – a wonderful place to start and finish the most important four years of their baccalaureate learning experience.  

Rhode Island College’s Dr. Sanchez put it nicely in his inaugural remarks: “As President, I am called on to place students at the center of a teaching and learning enterprise, providing them with unparalleled opportunities to show their talents on the local, state, national and international stage and to uphold a core educational belief that every interaction with a student is a Rhode Island College moment of truth and that in every student interaction there is a life in the balance for this great State.” 

Once fully developed and independently validated, the Ocean State Index can serve as a beacon for aspiring public colleges to make a compelling case for their respective value propositions.  

—James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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