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No Success on Success Measures

September 8, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The federal committee charged with recommending ways for the Education Department to better judge student success at community colleges will meet at least once more before approving a final report, despite a draft copy of recommendations issued last week that sketched the broad outlines of the committee’s plan.

When members of the Committee on Measures of Student Success met Wednesday, the meeting was scheduled to be the group’s last. But they couldn’t reach a final agreement on points that bedeviled the 14-member committee of education leaders and policy experts at its previous three meetings in the past year: what role student outcomes, especially students’ employment status and salary after graduation, should play in evaluating colleges.

The draft recommendations called on the Education Department to “encourage institutions to voluntarily collect, disclose and report … measures of student learning and employment.” Some members wanted a stronger recommendation or more emphasis on students’ employability, while others, especially those representing two-year institutions themselves, said evaluating programs not intended as job training by “gainful employment” standards was inappropriate.

The federal gainful employment rule issued in June is intended to evaluate whether students in vocational programs actually find work in their field and earn enough to pay off their student loan debt. While it applies to certificate and non-degree programs at community colleges, it has not been applied to liberal arts degrees or other programs that are not strictly vocational in nature.

“I think this is weak,” said Harold Levy, a former New York City schools chancellor and managing director of Palm Ventures, who led the fight for more data collection and disclosure on students’ job prospects. “This is not asking for much. This is not asking for anything terribly useful.” Palm Ventures has invested in for-profit colleges, and many for-profit college advocates are in favor of applying the gainful employment rule to a broader range of institutions.

Institutions should be required to collect and disclose data on student learning and employment, not merely encouraged to do so, he said.

Most community colleges have at least one program that already falls under the department’s “gainful employment” rules, and going further is unnecessary, said Wayne Burton, president of North Shore Community College, in Massachusetts.

“The gainful employment regulations the way they are now are fine,” Burton said. While the current regulations make sense for students in job training programs, they are not a good way to evaluate the educational success of students in the liberal arts, for example, he said.

The committee appeared to agree on recommending disclosure -- to students and to the public -- of the data institutions collect for the gainful employment rule, including placement rates and average debt, said Thomas Bailey, professor of economics and education at Columbia University and the committee’s chairman. But there was little consensus about whether they should be required to collect and disclose more data than federal law already requires.

Other sections of the draft report met with less opposition, including those dealing with measuring students’ progress and completion rates.

Members agreed that measures of success, including graduation rates, should separate students who need remedial classes from those who do not. They also agreed that there should be better ways to track students who transfer, as well as students who are prepared to transfer whether they do or not, but didn't come up with a way to measure those students despite numerous suggestions. (A panel of technical experts may consider some of these questions, along with better ways to define "degree-seeking" students.)

They also agreed to add a strong recommendation to develop a national longitudinal data system to track students through their college careers and improve data collection on students who transfer, among other measures.

Getting support for such a system might be politically difficult, committee members acknowledged, given that an Education Department proposal to create one died amid vociferous opposition from Congressional Republicans, independent colleges and privacy advocates. But they agreed it was necessary to better measure students’ success.

“For researchers and for consumers and for government policy makers, that is clearly the right decision,” Levy said. “Right now we’re putting our fingers in our ears to say, no, no, no, heaven forbid that the data be collected in one place so people can make an intelligent decision. We ought to step up and say these things.”

Since members appeared unlikely to agree on all changes to the draft by the end of Wednesday’s meeting, they will have at least one more meeting by teleconference in late October or early November, with another draft of recommendations made public before that meeting.

 

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