It’s conference season and we’re at most. Although we talk with all different types of schools every day, there’s something about large gatherings of academics that distills insights and truths that yield light bulb moments fueled by diverse thoughts. While a lot of oxygen is being consumed about analytics of all kinds, a nursing director at a cocktail reception gave her bottom line predictor of who would succeed in her school’s nursing program. She simply asks: “What’s 7 x 7?” If  potential students can’t answer, then a degree in nursing, whether LPN or RN, is a not in their future. As Thoreau wrote: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”*

Ah, but how that simplicity can be so falsely illuminating. We heard how so many state capitals have simplified student success metrics so that funding can be directly tied to the success rates of the school. “Tied” in most cases means cut.  How simple and neat it appears that if a school has a 30% success rate, then funding must be cut. Why? It makes good business sense. The school obviously isn’t performing well. But there’s the rub. Isn’t the school “performing well” for the 30%? If we’re going to trap and strangle the world of education in economic terms, let’s do it from the perspective of success, not failure. Might it be that the “cost” of 70% not succeeding is part of the additional cost of  30% of the students succeeding? In a perfect world, 100% of admitted students would succeed. But that cannot happen. So some states (some would argue most) now make the perfect the enemy of the good and justify funding cuts because not all are succeeding.

We get so caught up in the number, the number, the number. As one organization head warned: “If we don’t define student success metrics, someone else will.” Those same sentiments were expressed at NACADA last year.  At last week’s Higher Learning Commission  (HLC) conference, the president argued that peer review is key to accreditation. She had to state this because she faces challenges, from those outside of academics, that there is something suspicious about this practice. When asked by the press about this criticism, she responds: what group of people would you have evaluate your ranks? Why, ourselves, they answer. She smiles and moves on.

We are all for an exploration of a potential higher ed student’s acumen for their intended major or a process to help guide undeclared student majors (as long as these academic guides keep a copy of the rejection letter Albert Einstein received from the Polytechnic Institute in Zürich). And there is value in monitoring student performance vis-a-vis attendance, assignments, etc. (as long as the algorithm makers and users put Einstein’s performance into their formulas: ” he skipped classes, did not attend all the lectures of his Professors, and before going to the examinations he studied instead from the notebooks of his good friend from class….”

There’s a little bit, and in some, a lot, of Einstein in all of our students. The goal of education is bring out and develop those talents that students bring to school. While 7 x 7 indicates some, or a lot, of required remedial work before entering nursing, we must always be aware that draconian formulas for assessing student success and funding at schools are anathema to real education.

And as for the present prince of academics, predictive analytics, we’ll leave you with this thought from an HLC presentation by Grinnell College: “It is tricky (when predictive analytics tell you) to intervene with a 3.5 student.”

*  Here’s the full quotation for those of you wh0 relish the Concord Rebel: “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.
— Walden