Many of us have heard the expression, “We are what we measure.” But few stop to ponder whether our organizations are actually measuring what we value. Consider college and university mission statements. Presumably, these statements articulate the most important outcomes the institution wants to achieve. Trustees of colleges and universities have a responsibility to guide the institution according to its mission or, at times, to modify it. They are entrusted to hold the institution accountable to its stated mission. Otherwise, why even have such a statement? But if there were a grade assigned to how higher education is doing according to its collective mission statements, it would be an “F” or a dropped class. Colleges and universities simply aren’t measuring whether they are accomplishing their stated missions.
These mission statements articulate lofty ideals and goals: engaged citizenry, research in the service of society, global leadership, fulfilling lives, etc. The challenge is less about whether those are the right aims and more about how institutions will know if they are meeting them. Gallup read and analyzed hundreds of college mission statements as part of a recent study; most are very similar, with a handful of words and phrases used by the majority of institutions, the most common being “life-long learning.” Presumably, then, there is extensive data measuring how well universities are doing in producing life-long learners among their graduates. Ask yourself whether you’ve ever seen such data, nationally or for your own institution. Likely, you haven’t, because few if any institutions have ever sought to measure it.
What would it look like if we measured our mission statements in higher education? Recent Gallup studies shed some light on this, but here’s a hint: doing so requires using behavioral economic measures.