Unfortunately, some of us are old enough to have passed through various incarnations of the accountability movement in higher education. Periodically university people or their critics rediscover the notion of accountability, as if the notion of being accountable to students, parents, legislators, donors, federal agencies, and other institutional constituencies were something new and unrecognized by our colleagues. We appear to have entered another cycle, signaled by the publication last month of a call to action by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) association, with support from the Ford Foundation, called "Accountability for Better Results."
The SHEEO report has the virtue of recognizing many of the reasons why state-level accountability systems fail, and focuses its attention primarily on the issue of access and graduation rates. While this is a currently popular and important topic, the SHEEO report illustrates why the notion of "accountability" by itself has little meaning. Universities and colleges have many constituencies, consumers, funding groups, interested parties, and friends. Every group expects the university to do things in ways that satisfy their goals and objectives, and seek "accountability" from the institution to ensure that their priorities drive the university’s performance. While each of these widely differentiated accountability goals may be appropriate for each group, the sum of these goals do not approach anything like "institutional accountability."
Accountability has special meaning in public universities where it usually signifies a response to the concerns of state legislators and other public constituencies that a campus is actually producing what the state wants with the money the state provides. This is the most common form of accountability, and often leads to accountability systems or projects that attempt to put all institutions of higher education into a common framework to ensure the wise expenditure of state money on the delivery of higher education products to the people.
In this form, accountability is usually a great time sink with no particular value, although it has the virtue of keeping everyone occupied generating volumes of data of dubious value in complex ways that will exhaust the participants before having any useful impact. The SHEEO report is particularly clear on this point.
This form of accountability has almost no practical utility because state agencies cannot accurately distinguish one institution of higher education from the other for the purposes of providing differential funding. If the state accountability system does not provide differential funding for differential performance, then the exercise is more in the nature of an intense conversation about what good things the higher education system should be doing rather than a process for creating a system that could actually hold institutions accountable for their performance.
Public agencies rarely hold institutions accountable because to do so requires that they punish the poor performers or at least reward the good performers. No institution wants a designation as a poor performer. An institution with problematic performance characteristics as measured by some system will mobilize every political agent at its disposal (local legislators, powerful alumni and friends, student advocates, parents) to modify the accountability criteria to include sufficient indicators on which they can perform well.
In response to this political pressure, and to accommodate the many different kinds, types and characteristics of institutions, the accountability system usually ends up with 20, 30 or more accountability measures. No institution will do well on all of them, and every institution will do well on many of them, so in the end, all institutions will qualify as reasonably effective to very effective, and all will remain funded more or less as before.
The lifecycle of this process is quite long and provides considerable opportunity for impassioned rhetoric about how well individual institutions serve their students and communities, how effective the research programs are in enhancing economic development, how valuable the public service activities enhance the state, and so on. At the end, when most participants have exhausted their energy and rhetoric, and when the accountability system has achieved stasis, everyone will declare a victory and the accountability impulse will go dormant for several years until rediscovered again.
Often, state accountability systems offer systematic data reporting schemes with goals and targets defined in terms of improvement, but without incentives or sanctions. These systems assume that the value of measuring alone will motivate institutions to improve to avoid being marked as ineffective. This kind of system has value in identifying the goals and objectives of the state for its institutions, but often relegates the notion of accountability to the reporting of data rather than the allocation of money, where it could make a significant difference.
If an institution, state, or other entity wants to insist on improved performance from universities, they must specify the performance they seek and then adjust state appropriations to reward those who meet or exceed the established standard. Reductions in state budgets for institutions that fail to perform are rare for obvious political reasons, but the least effective system is one that allocates funds to poorly performing institutions with the expectation that the reward for poor performance will motivate improvement. One key to effective performance improvement, reinforced in the SHEEO report, is strictly limiting the number of key indicators for measuring improvement. If the number of indicators exceeds 10, the exercise is likely to find all institutions performing well on some indicator and therefore all deserving of continued support.
Often the skepticism that surrounds state accountability systems stems from a mismatch between the goals of the state (with an investment of perhaps 30 percent or less of the institutional budget) and those of the institutions. Campuses may seek nationally competitive performance in research, teaching, outreach, and other activities. States may seek improvement in access and student graduation rates as the primary determinants of accountability. Institutions may see the state’s efforts as detracting from the institution’s drive toward national reputation and success. Such mismatches in goals and objectives often weaken the effectiveness of state accountability programs.
Universities are very complex and serve many constituencies with many different expectations about the institutions’ activities. Improvement comes from focusing carefully on particular aspects of an institution’s performance, identifying reliable and preferably nationally referenced indicators, and then investing in success. While the selection of improvement goals and the development of good measures are essential, the most important element in all improvement programs is the ability to move money to reward success.
If an accountability system only measures improvement and celebrates success, it will produce a warm glow of short duration. Performance improvement is hard work and takes time, while campus budgets change every year. Effective measurement is often time consuming and sometimes difficult, and campus units will not participate effectively unless there is a reward. The reward that all higher education institutions and their constituent units understand is money. This is not necessarily money reflected in salary increases, although that is surely effective in some contexts.
Primarily what motivates university improvement, however, is the opportunity to enhance the capacity of a campus. If a campus teaches more students, and as a result earns the opportunity to recruit additional faculty members, this financial reward is of major significance and will motivate continued improvement. At the same time, the campus that seeks improvement cannot reward failure. If enrollment declines, the campus should not receive compensatory funding in hopes of future improvement. Instead, a poorly performing campus should work harder to get better so it too can earn additional support.
In public institutions, the small proportion of state funding within the total budget limits the ability of state systems to influence campus behavior by reallocating funding. In particular, in many states, most of the public money pays for salaries, and reallocating funds proves difficult. Nonetheless, most public systems and legislatures can identify some funds to allocate as a reward for improved performance. Even relatively small budget increases represent a significant reward for campus achievements.
Accountability, as the SHEEO report highlights, is a word with no meaning until we define the measures and the purpose. If we mean accountability to satisfy public expectations for multiple institutions on many variables, we can expect that the exercise will be time consuming and of little practical impact. If we mean accountability to improve the institution’s performance in specific ways, then we know we need to develop a few key measures and move at least some money to reward improvement.
John V. Lombardi
John V. Lombardi, chancellor and professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes Reality Check every two weeks. Scott McLemee's column, Intellectual Affairs, will return Thursday.
Over the last generation, most colleges and universities have experienced considerable grade inflation. Much lamented by traditionalists and explained away or minimized by more permissive faculty, the phenomenon presents itself both as an increase in students’ grade point averages at graduation as well as an increase in high grades and a decrease in low grades recorded for individual courses. More prevalent in humanities and social science than in science and math courses and in elite private institutions than in public institutions, discussion about grade inflation generates a great deal of heat, if not always as much light.
While the debate on the moral virtues of any particular form of grade distribution fascinates as cultural artifact, the variability of grading standards has a more practical consequence. As grades increasingly reflect an idiosyncratic and locally defined performance levels, their value for outside consumers of university products declines. Who knows what an "A" in American History means? Is the A student one of the top 10 percent in the class or one of the top 50 percent?
Fuzziness in grading reflects a general fuzziness in defining clearly what we teach our students and what we expect of them. When asked to defend our grading practices by external observers -- parents, employers, graduate schools, or professional schools -- our answers tend toward a vague if earnest exposition on the complexity of learning, the motivational differences in evaluation techniques, and the pedagogical value of learning over grading. All of this may well be true in some abstract sense, but our consumers find our explanations unpersuasive and on occasion misleading.
They turn, then, to various forms of standardized testing. When the grades of an undergraduate have an unpredictable relevance to a standard measure performance, and when high quality institutions that should set the performance standard routinely give large proportions of their students “A” grades, others must look elsewhere for some reliable reference. A 3.95 GPA should reflect the same level of preparation for students from different institutions.
Because they do not, we turn to the GMAT, LSAT, GRE, or MCAT, to take four famous examples. These tests normalize the results from the standards-free zone of American higher education. The students who aspire to law or medical school all have good grades, especially in history or organic chemistry. In some cases, a student’s college grades may prove little more than his or her ability to fulfill requirements and mean considerably less than the results of a standardized test that attempts to identify precisely what the student knows that is relevant to the next level of academic activity.
Although many of us worry that these tests may be biased against various subpopulations, emphasize the wrong kind of knowledge, and encourage students to waste time and money on test prep courses, they have one virtue our grading system does not provide: The tests offer a standardized measure of a specific and clearly defined subset of knowledge deemed useful by those who require them for admission to graduate or professional study.
Measuring State Investment
If the confusion over the value of grades and test scores were not enough, we discover that at least for public institutions, our state accountability systems focus heavily on an attempt to determine whether student performance reflects a reasonable value for taxpayer investment in colleges and universities. This accountability process engages a wide range of measures -- time to degree, graduation rate, student satisfaction, employment, graduate and professional admission, and other indicators of undergraduate performance -- but even with the serious defects in most of these systems, they respond to the same problems as do standardized tests.
Our friends and supporters have little confidence in the self-generated mechanisms we use to specify the achievement of our students. If the legislature believed that students graduating with a 3.0 GPA were all good performers measured against a rigorous national standard applied to reasonably comparable curricula, they would not worry much about accountability. They would just observe whether our students learned enough to earn a nationally normed 3.0 GPA.
Of course, we have no such mechanism to validate the performance of our students. We do not know whether our graduates leave better or worse prepared than the students from other institutions. We too, in recognition of the abdication of our own academic authority as undergraduate institutions, rely on the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, and GMAT to tell us whether the students who apply (including our own graduates) can meet the challenges of advanced study at our own universities.
Partly this follows from another peculiarity of the competitive nature of the American higher education industry. Those institutions we deem most selective enroll students with high SATs on average (recognizing that a high school record is valuable only when validated in some fashion by a standardized test). Moreover, because selective institutions admit smart students who have the ability to perform well, and because these institutions have gone to such trouble to recruit them, elite colleges often feel compelled to fulfill the prophecy of the students’ potential by ensuring that most graduate with GPA’s in the A range. After all, they may say, average does not apply to our students because they are all, by definition, above average.
When reliable standards of performance weaken in any significant and highly competitive industry, consumers seek alternative external means of validating the quality of the services provided. The reluctance of colleges and universities, especially the best among us, to define what they expect from their students in any rigorous and comparable way, brings accreditation agencies, athletic organizations, standardized test providers, and state accountability commissions into the conversation, measuring the value of the institution’s results against various nationally consistent expectations of performance.
We academics dislike these intrusions into our academic space because they coerce us to teach to the tests or the accountability systems, but the real enemy is our own unwillingness to adopt rigorous national standards of our own.
These are challenging times for members of today’s military. Not only are servicemen and women called upon for extended combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, some on the home front are being asked to lengthen their careers or return to active duty from the Reserves.
Given the sacrifices that they are being asked to make, it is disturbing that many military families can’t seem to get fair treatment on tuition at state colleges and universities.
In Virginia, a state legislative committee recently rejected a measure designed to improve the quality of life for military employees and their families who are stationed in the Commonwealth. Introduced by Del. Viola O. Baskerville, the bill included a provision to extend in-state tuition benefits at public colleges and universities to active-duty members of the armed services, their spouses and dependents. Many of these military service members and their families are either stationed in Virginia for a period that is too short to qualify for residency or they move so often that they prefer to keep their residency in either their state of birth or state where they plan to eventually return.
Those who opposed the bill generally cited fiscal concerns, but the impact in terms of a total state budget would be miniscule.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the question of whether in-state tuition is made available to military families, the current answer is a patchwork quilt of different policies from state to state when, pardon the pun, a uniform policy should be in order.
In 2002, a U.S. Army-formed working group examined the in-state tuition policies of states and found that most, but not all, provide in-state tuition rates to military families when they are stationed in state. The working group recommended an "ideal" in-state tuition policy that would provide:
in-state tuition for service members and their families in the state of legal residence;
in-state tuition for military and family in the state of assignment; and
continuity for the duration of a student’s degree program once a student has started (even if his or her parent is reassigned to a base in another state or outside the country).
A slim majority of states, 26 in all, have adopted all three components of the recommended policy. In 18 others, in-state tuition is available to both military residents and assignees, but continuity of the benefit, once started, is not always available. And in five states -- Massachusetts, Vermont, Michigan, Indiana and South Dakota -- policies are left up to individual public colleges and universities to decide, creating uncertainty and stress for military families.
That leaves only one state, Virginia, which as a matter of policy does not offer assigned military families the opportunity for in-state tuition at any public college or university. This situation deserves special scrutiny because Virginia ranks No. 2 in the nation when it comes to military dollars invested, trailing only California. Military bases are a key part of Virginia’s economy, with spending exceeding $34 billion a year and 208,000 people employed at 147 installations.
Doesn’t it seem odd that, of all the states in the top 10 for military investments, only Virginia does not follow all three of the recommended guidelines?
Six of the top 10 states in military investment -- Texas, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, Connecticut and Washington -- have changed their policies within the past two years, in order to comply with the recommended guidelines. Two other highly ranked recipients of military investment, Florida and Arizona, were already in compliance with the recommended policies. The largest state in terms of military investment, California, follows all three guidelines, though its continuity program is weak, offering only one year of in-state tuition after reassignment out of state.
The men and women of our armed forces risk their lives in service to our country. These families should not be asked to bear a greater economic burden in educating their children than their civilian neighbors across town.
Now is the time for all states, especially Virginia, to adopt a consistent, three-pronged policy that would mandate in-state tuition for military families, as well as offer continued in-state tuition once higher education has begun. This seems the least we can do back on the home front for the millions of men and women who are serving our country in uniform.
James A. Boyle
James A. Boyle is president of College Parents of America, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to empowering parents to best support their children on the path to and through college.Â Headquartered in Arlington, Va., College Parents of America reaches more than 25,000 current and future college parents.
In my work as Oregon’s college evaluator, I am often asked why state approval is not "as good as accreditation" or "equivalent to accreditation."
We may be about to find out, to our sorrow: One version of the Higher Education Act reauthorization legislation moving through Congress quietly allows states to become federally recognized accreditors. A senior official in the U.S. Department of Education has confirmed that one part of the legislation would eliminate an existing provision that says state agencies can be recognized as federally approved accreditors only if they were recognized by the education secretary before October 1, 1991. Only one, the New York State Board of Regents, met the grandfather provision. By striking the grandfather provision, any state agency would be eligible to seek recognition.
If such a provision becomes law, we will see exactly why some states refuse to recognize degrees issued under the authority of other states: It is quite possible to be state-approved and a low-quality degree provider.Which states allow poor institutions to be approved to issue degrees?
Here are the Seven Sorry Sisters: Alabama (split authority for assessing and recognizing degrees), Hawaii (poor standards, excellent enforcement of what little there is), Idaho (poor standards, split authority), Mississippi (poor standards, political interference), Missouri (poor standards, political interference), New Mexico (grandfathered some mystery degree suppliers) and of course the now infamous Wyoming (poor standards, political indifference or active support of poor schools).
Wyoming considers degree mills and other bottom-feeders to be a source of economic development. You’d think that oil prices would relieve their need to support degree mills. Even the Japanese television network NHK sent a crew to Wyoming to warn Japanese citizens about the cluster of supposed colleges there: Does the state care so little for foreign trade it does not care that 10 percent of the households in Japan saw that program? You’d think that Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, who now chairs the committee responsible for education, would care more about the appalling reputation of their home state. Where is Alan Simpson when we need him?
In the world of college evaluation, these seven state names ring out like George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television,” and those of us responsible for safeguarding the quality of degrees in other states often apply some of those words to so-called “colleges” approved to operate in these states -- so-called “colleges” like Breyer State University in Alabama and Idaho (which “State” does this for-profit represent, anyway?).
There are some dishonorable mentions, too, such as California, where the standards are not bad but enforcement has been lax and the process awash in well-heeled lobbyists. The new director of California’s approval agency, Barbara Ward, seems much tougher than recent placeholders -- trust someone trained as a nurse to carry a big needle and be prepared to use it.
The obverse of this coin is that in some states, regulatory standards are higher than the standards of national accreditors, as Oregon discovered when we came across an accredited college with two senior officials sporting fake degrees. The national accreditors, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, had not noticed this until we mentioned it to them. What exactly do they review, if they completely ignore people’s qualifications?
The notion that membership in an accrediting association is voluntary is, of course, one of the polite fictions that higher education officials sometimes say out loud when they are too far from most listeners to inspire a round of laughter. In fact, losing accreditation is not far removed from a death sentence for almost any college, because without accreditation, students are not eligible for federal financial aid, and without such aid, most of them can’t go to school – at least to that school.
For this reason, if Congress ever decoupled aid eligibility from accreditation by one of the existing accreditors -- for example, by allowing state governments to become accreditors -- the “national” accreditors of schools would dry up and blow away by dawn the next day: They serve no purpose except as trade associations and milking machines for federal aid dollars.
The Libertarian View of Degrees
One view of the purpose and function of college degrees suggests that the government need not concern itself with whether a degree is issued by an accredited college or even a real college. This might be considered the classic libertarian view: that employers, clients and other people should come to their own conclusions, based on their own research, regarding whether a credential called a “degree” by the entity that issued (or printed) it is appropriate for a particular job or need. This view is universally propounded by the owners of degree mills, who become wealthy by selling degrees to people who think they can get away with using them this way.
The libertarian view is tempting, but presupposes a capacity and inclination to evaluate that most employers have always lacked and always will, while of course an average private citizen is even more removed from that ability and inclination. Who will actually do the research that the hypothetical perfect employer should do?
Consider the complexities of the U.S. accreditation system, the proliferation of fake accreditors complete with names nearly identical to real ones (there were at least two fake DETCs, imitating the real Distance Education Training Council, in 2005), phone numbers, carefully falsified lists of approved schools, Web sites showing buildings far from where the owners had ever been and other accoutrements.
To the morass of bogus accreditors in the U.S., add the world. Hundreds of jurisdictions, mostly not English-speaking, issuing a bewildering array of credentials under regimens not quite like American postsecondary education. Add a layer of corruption in some states and countries, a genial indifference in others, a nearly universal lack of enforcement capacity and you have a recipe for academic goulash that even governments are hard-pressed to render into proper compartments. In the past 10 days my office has worked with national officials in England, Sweden, The Netherlands, Canada and Australia to sort out suspicious degree validations. Very few businesses and almost no private citizens are capable of doing this without an exhausting allocation of time and resources. It does not and will not happen.
Should state governments accredit colleges?
State governments, not accreditors or the federal government, are the best potential guarantors of degree program quality at all but the major research universities, but only if they take their duty seriously, set and maintain high standards and keep politicians from yanking on the strings of approval as happens routinely in some states. Today, fewer than a dozen states have truly solid standards, most are mediocre and several, including the Seven Sorry Sisters, are quite poor.
If Congress is serious about allowing states to become accreditors, there must be a reason. I can think of at least two reasons. First, such an action would kill off many existing accreditors without having their work added to the U.S. Department of Education (which no one in their right mind, Democrat, Republican or Martian, wants to enlarge). This would count as devolutionary federalism (acceptable to both parties under the right conditions).
The second reason is the one that is never spoken aloud. There will be enormous, irresistible pressure on many state governments to accredit small religious schools that could never get accredited even by specialized religious accreditors today. The potential bounty in financial aid dollars for all of those church-basement colleges is incalculable.
Remember that another provision of the same proposed statute would prohibit even regionally accredited universities from screening out transfer course work based on the nature of the accreditor. Follow the bread crumbs and the net result will be a huge bubble of low-end courses being hosed through the academic pipeline, with the current Congressional leadership cranking the nozzle.
The possibility of such an outcome should provide impetus to the discussions that have gone on for many years regarding the need for some uniformity (presumably at a level higher than that of the Seven Sorry Sister states) in standards for state approval of colleges. We need a “model code” for state college approvals, something that leading states can agree to (with interstate recognition of degrees) and that states with poor standards can aspire to.
The universe of 50 state laws, some excellent and some abysmal, allows poor schools to venue-shop and then claim that their state approval makes them good schools when they are little better than diploma mills. We must do better.
Should states accredit colleges? Only if they can do it well. Today’s record is mixed, and Congress should not give states the power to accredit (or allow the Department of Education to give states the power) until they have proven that their own houses are in order. That day has not yet come.
Alan L. Contreras
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission.
Somehow I missed the meeting where the nation decided to exit public higher education. I was, after all, chief financial officer of a public university.
This is no fantasy. This drama is under way across the nation.
The story line so far is that healthcare and public safety costs finally have squeezed out higher education. Institutions will always find ways to survive. The casualties are the poor students, with the ability but neither the money nor the savvy to navigate falling student aid and rising tuition.
The meeting we need, which no one has called, has this agenda: Why aren’t we discussing the fact that scrambled state and federal priorities are shutting down public higher education and strangling access? And preventing creation of a decent work force?
Some of the leading scholars of higher education – people like Mike McPherson, Morton Owen Schapiro, and Tom Kane, participants in the Forum for the Future of Higher Education -- have clearly shown how soaring costs of Medicaid and infrastructure are pushing higher education out of the food chain of state general funds. Those forces are colliding to shut down the public university system in this nation, preventing thousands and thousands from leading self-supporting lives. We all know this and yet no one has a plan to respond.
I learned this the hard way when I was CFO of the University of Hawaii system, an $800 million, 45,000-student, 10-campus public system for a few years, during a notorious hurricane between the president, the governor and the Board of Regents.
The funding issues were the underlying driver of the tensions there. And all 50 states had the same issues. Yet no one state was talking to the other. Or to the federal government. Not for lack of interest. The avoidance arose from fatigue, from lack of skill and, to a large degree, lack of courage.
No one seems to be focusing on this crisis or crafting a plan to deal with it. The higher education associations are busy fighting for every dollar in current reauthorization bills. Although this is a national problem, it plays itself out most intensely in individual states, And the tension involving Medicaid and state general funds and tuition becomes another zero-sum games at the state houses, where there is no more money.
My goal is to pose a few irreverent questions to shake loose better thinking. Here goes.
Point: Who among us is accountable for those who are not now in college but who ought to be? Those who have the ability but not the money or the savvy to navigate the system? No one. Why not? In education discussions, a balanced institutional budget, public or private, is the operating metric. If the institutions are operating and solvent, no one asks who is not enrolled. As a society, shouldn’t a measure include those able students who are shut out?
Point: Some say, looking to the Founding Fathers who left education out of the Constitution, that the U.S. shouldn’t have a national higher education policy. I’d say we already do.
I’ll illustrate by picking on Williams College and on Yale. My schools. I know they can take it. The implied federal subsidy per student at Williams and Yale is somewhere between $25,000 and $35,000 per year. I get that figure from conservative estimates of the tax-exempt endowment returns and of the tax-deductible donations each year. I am a CFO. Those are the numbers. This is at least twice the cost for a student at any community college.
Our national policy, then, is that the indoor golf-driving nets at Williams, built by tax-deducted dollars, are more important than Pell Grants for community college students working a night shift and going to school. No one has changed the federal tax policy here lately. In federal debate, Pell Grants are always at risk and eligibility changes often.
Point: Commercial-bank interest subsidies for student loans are also more important than Pell Grants for those community college students. That’s our current national policy.
Point: Our national policy is that we can’t find more money for student aid. Yet billions appear for Katrina overnight. This may be deficit spending and raises all sorts of questions to debate. It is our policy that Katrina is more important than creating a work force to sustain the nation.
Point: What about indirect-cost reimbursement for federal research? This varies from 36.5 percent at the University of Hawaii to 60 percent at many fancier schools. This means that the MIT Stata Center, designed by Frank Gehry at who knows what per square foot, is more important than a Pell Grant for community college student. Why not a more modest building in exchange for a few more $350 single-mother childcare Pell Grant payments? So the single mother can stay in school. I wish I were making this up.
Next point: This is about money. The debate within higher education is to justify the costs, not to examine the cost fundamentals.
The drivers, higher education leaders say, are health insurance, wireless Internet fees, premium dining plans. While funding drops, the argument goes, costs have to rise. What, though, is the fundamental cost driver of higher education? Isn’t that the unexamined assumption that a degree must be four years worth of credits? Which most students cannot complete even in five years? Why must a college degree be four academic years and 32 credits, one semester at a time? That model is from the 14th century at the University of Bologna. The pedagogical design constraint in that era was the shortage of books. Would we send an injured or sick child today to a 14th century hospital? Is that what we are doing in higher education?
Point: The past 50 years have produced what scientists and educators call the cognitive revolution. We know so much more about learning. How could we use that knowledge to show young people all that excites our best scientists and scholars in their research every day? Why do we ignore what we know about knowing?
Point. Politics. I’ve yet to meet a college president with a plan to improve national funding for higher education. Meetings in Washington are often about specific earmarks (read: pork) for one institution. Higher education leaders, I believe, underestimate what they can accomplish to the good, for everyone. I can cite no better example than from conversations that I’ve had as part of a Federal Reserve of Chicago project. Many of the Midwest’s leaders have expressed concern that there is nothing they can do. The problems are just too huge. I disagree, I’ve said. Look at their Congressional delegation: Michigan. Illinois. Wisconsin. Indiana. Iowa. Even presidential hopefuls among your senators.
Good ideas count. Help these senators and members of Congress. Give them something to propose. Other states are missing the same chance to lead.
Point: As a society, we know how to educate people. But we don’t need a Manhattan Project or all sorts of high-risk research to start. We know what to do. Why not take a swing at it?
Point -- or question. Have university CFOs, myself included, failed? Miserably so, I’d say. It’s our job to attract sufficient capital to the work. That’s not happening. Operating or long-term.
Why can’t we CFOs demonstrate the value of higher education in a way that leads to investment? Isn’t this our job? I’ve never met a finer group than those CFO colleagues. As a profession, we have let the job become budget triage, not capital formation. I don’t know why, but I can’t interest the National Association of College and University Business Officers in a talk on why we’ve failed. As a profession, we have to face down this failure. These funding issues are our problem.
Point: Do we know our customer? If there are any Gallup-type surveys on what students want in education, I haven’t seen them. I do not mean dropping standards or giving away the store. How can providers, colleges and universities, help? Why do we know more about how much caffeine students want in what form each day than we do about learning preferences? Look at what this young population has done to the music industry. No more albums. They want the music song by song.
Point: What about innovation? Strong economies need innovators. Educators must set the example. I don’t mean to replace faculty. Again, what’s the opportunity here? Look at the iPod and education. My daughter carries her language lab for Arabic with her. Look at the new short books, No-Nonsense Guides or The Oxford series A Very Short Introduction to dozens of topics, from A -- Ancient Philosophy to W – Wittgenstein, with stops at Darwin, Descartes, Design, Intelligence, Music, Shakespeare and Socrates. What about the Quick Study Bar Charts? At least the new dean of my Yale School of Management ought to be alarmed at how good that $4.95 Management guide is. Why does so much curriculum restate what’s available elsewhere? What about all the new skills we need?
These tools are not a substitute for a degree. They are not the quality of a seminar with a great teacher. These tools are excellent sources to topics once available by the semester only. What is the opportunity for liberating faculty here?
Point: Where are the students? They don’t seem even to vote. To every student who came to my office with a complaint, always justified, I asked, “Are you registered to vote?” Never. Puzzled looks at what difference that made. No one has greater direct, immediate interest in voting than a public college and university student, I would explain. A few hundred postcards to the statehouse can get the money for repairs. A few thousand would change the world. Whatever I said was wrong. Only one listened. And he did, after a year, end up with a million dollar earmark from the governor for dormitory work.
Point: And this one troubles me most of all. Are we talking about education or about politics? Do we really want everyone to have a great education? Cynics might say that as a society we’d rather pay welfare and Medicaid than for an education. This is less competition for the rest of us. Is that where we are? Even a cynic would have to admit that education is cheaper (read: lower taxes) than social services.
We are stuck. I can’t describe the U.S. higher ed situation better than my colleague Adam Kahane, in his excellent, slim and readable book Solving Tough Problems – An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2004).
Problems are tough because they are complex in three ways. They are dynamically complex, which means that cause and effect are far apart in space and time, and so are hard to grasp from firsthand experience. They are generatively complex, which means they are unfolding in unfamiliar and unpredictable ways. And they are socially complex, which means that the people, and so the problems, become polarized and stuck.
Point: Last one. So what? Why does it matter if we support national policies that shut out poor students? How can we not support the typical student at a state college and community college? We all know these students. They are 25. They have families. They work the night shift at McDonald's to contribute to the rent for their parents and grandparents. And then still, these students get to school. Every day they display motivation beyond the imagination of anyone at any of my schools. How can we hold them back?
I know well that my passion can run ahead of the data. I test myself wherever I go. I’ve found that the person serving coffee or pumping gas or bagging groceries is usually a student, regardless of their age. I mean the airport van driver who wants to go to school but hasn’t heard of a Pell Grant. Ask these people. That’s why we have to do better.
Wick Sloane is Chief Operating Officer of Generon Consulting in Massachusetts and a visiting fellow on higher education finance at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. This essay is adapted from a speech he gave at a meeting sponsored by the bank in November. The views expressed here are his own. Â
American colleges and universities, especially those that define themselves as public institutions because they are owned by states, carry on a continuous conversation with their faculty, students, trustees, legislators, alumni and friends about the distribution of benefits and costs between private and public entities. This conversation of many decades has gained considerable visibility lately in the form of a question: Are America’s public universities becoming private? Although this question is surely worth the extended and often highly perceptive analysis it receives, it sometimes helps to reconfigure the debate slightly to gain another perspective.
It’s not that anyone misses the central point -- the public, tax supported percentage of public university budgets has been in decline for over a decade, even though the public investment in public higher education in total dollars continues to rise as more and more students enter postsecondary education. Rather, we often let our words define our view of the world when our words may not mean exactly what we take them to mean.
When we say public universities, we immediately bring a prototypical institution to mind, usually a substantial state flagship university, often from a Midwestern frame of reference, perhaps modeled after Iowa or Indiana or Wisconsin. When we say private university we also have a prototype in mind, perhaps Stanford, Yale or Duke. From these prototypes we develop a conversation about the convergence of public and private that leads us to worry about the loss of public purpose and investment in American higher education.
In the real world, most of public higher education takes place in state and community colleges that remain often 80 to 90 percent funded by public sources. For these institutions, the issue of public versus private is mostly irrelevant, and while they celebrate every small gift and modest grant, their primary focus is on their states and localities in the endless effort to sustain their operations. They are not at risk of becoming private.
Similarly, in the real world, the notion of private universities being somehow separate and independent from the obligations of public institutions by virtue of their funding sources is also not entirely accurate. Private universities, even those with exceptional endowments, exist to large extent on the public’s account. Their endowments succeed by virtue of public tax exemptions. The gifts that build the endowment enjoy a public tax exemption. The property and campuses of these private universities enjoy a public tax exemption. The federal government provides extensive tax supported need based financial aid to private institutions, revenue that subsidizes those institutions’ tuition and fess.
Private research universities, like their public counterparts, receive federal grants and contracts whose overhead pays some portion of the research costs, a direct taxpayer subsidy. Private universities in many states receive a per-student subsidy for every in-state student they enroll, again a public subsidy. And on occasion, private universities succeed in persuading their states to invest in economic development activities that support the academic objectives of the private institution (either by subsidizing research or helping defray the costs of facilities).
America’s private institutions are a public trust. While they can evade many of the considerable bureaucratic and regulatory costs and obligations that public universities endure, they are nonetheless, publicly subsidized institutions with private governance.
This is not a bad thing. It is just how we do business in America.
However, higher education itself (public or private as defined by institutional governance) is both a public good and a private good for most of its participants. Students in particular may attend college for wisdom and knowledge, but primarily they attend college to acquire the skills and credentials needed for the good life. Publication after publication calculates and compares the differential lifetime earnings of college graduates compared to high school graduates, demonstrating over and over again the exceptionally high personal, private value that a college education confers. The private benefit justifies tuition and fees, the lost income for the years of college attendance, and the loan indebtedness incurred by students and their families. The data tell us that these private benefits more than sufficiently compensate for the costs parents and students assume, a conclusion the behavior of students and parents verifies.
What’s the argument about then? If this is such a good deal, why do we have a controversy about the withdrawal of public support from public institutions? The controversy is less about the withdrawal of support than it is about the amount of subsidy individuals should receive as they acquire the private benefit of a college education. The consequence of a decline in the taxpayer subsidy of public higher education is an increase in the net cost of higher education to students. This increase in the net cost has many consequences, of course. As an example, for students whose families are at the margin of the American economic dream, any increase in the net cost may well put some forms of higher education, but usually not all forms, out of reach.
The changing emphasis away from the general benefit colleges and universities bring society to the particular benefit that they bring individuals encourages a tendency toward complex pricing. For selective institutions, as everyone knows, the sticker price of higher education (whether at a “public” or “private” institution) reflects what we could call a reference price. This is not the actual price charged every student; instead, a reference price marks the highest price a student should have to pay to acquire the private benefit of attending the institution. To arrive at the real price, the institution and the student engage in a private negotiation to set the net actual price based on an evaluation of what the institution can give the individual student and what the individual student can give the institution. This is not a public transaction that applies to all students; it is a private transaction that negotiates a private price between suppliers (the school) and individual consumers (the student).
Although this transactional model is well known to students and parents, it reflects a larger tendency in the American political and social environment to disaggregate a general public good (such as a university enterprise) into a collection of private goods (such as specific college degrees, different majors, or special programs) and then negotiate separate agreements and pricing mechanisms for the production and delivery of these private goods.
Many public and private universities find it easier to persuade legislators to buy particular fragments of the institution’s purposes than it is to acquire general funding for the overall purpose of the institution. We can get an earmark for an honors program, for a remedial program for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, for enhancement of science and math, for the improvement of writing skills, or for a research building tied to a specific economic development objective long before we can get an increase in the general fund to support general education and research for all students and faculty.
This particularistic approach to higher education affects public and private institutions in other areas of funding as well. When either type of institution asks a donor for institutional support, more and more donors want very specific agreements about the exact use of their funds, even if the funds are placed in an endowment that will last forever. They do not give money for the improvement of education; they give funds for art history, for the development of specific scientific sub-disciplines, or for the recruitment of basketball players. These transactions, like the student transactions, are individual, private, and specific.
We can speculate on the many reasons why our society has drifted into seeing higher education as a retail consumer product (whether owned by the public or by a private nonprofit corporation). We can worry about the lack of faith in the institutions’ integrity and consistency of purpose that encourages specific and detailed transactions rather than satisfaction with general commitments. We can feel outrage at the retreat from supporting higher education because it is good for the nation into a safe haven that sees higher education as a privately acquired ticket to prosperity. Yet every institution, public or private, finds itself accelerating these trends by its policies and practices.
I’m often reminded of an effort some years ago by a distinguished association of public and private research institutions to band together and refuse to participate in such retail negotiations, associated in this instance with federal earmarks. The academic leadership at that time employed remarkable eloquence in the defense of common approaches to peer reviewed grant making as being the best possible means of achieving the public good of merit based award of scientific and other educational support. After the meeting, the institutions appeared to increase their practice of securing as many earmarks in the federal budget as possible, employed high powered lobbyists to improve their chances, and kept score on how much money their local legislators helped them bring home.
All of us in American higher education, especially at the high end of America’s 170 or so research institutions, are in the public and private sectors. We all seek public funds and private funds, we all deal with our students on the basis of selling a publicly subsidized product at individually negotiated prices, we all show great creativity in disaggregating our products and services into the smallest retail units needed for sale to our many private purchasers. We might prefer a different system, but this one, for all its faults, is the one we’ve helped invent and continue to refine.
The heated rhetoric surrounding immigration reform legislation in Congress threatens to drown out an important, bipartisan effort to resolve a decades-old inconsistency in federal immigration law concerning postsecondary tuition costs for undocumented students who have graduated from high schools in the United States.
The “DREAM Act,” which was incorporated into the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration reform bill last week, would allow states to provide in-state tuition for postsecondary education to undocumented students who have attended (for at least three years) and graduated from high school in their states.
Federal immigration law now prohibits them from doing so, though that has not stopped several states, including “red” states like Utah, Kansas, and Texas, from adopting such legislation in recognition of the fact that there are more than 50,000 of these students each year that graduate from high school as -- in nearly every way -- children of the American dream.
Of the DREAM Act, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) stated, “I find it inconceivable that we would provide greater benefits to persons who are here illegally than to American citizens. It makes a mockery of the rule of law."
However, Congress must ensure the debate over the education of undocumented students is actually grounded in the law, rather than rhetoric. Federal law related to this issue was interpreted more than 20 years ago by the United States Supreme Court’s 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision.
Plyler v. Doe involved a Texas law that effectively banned undocumented minor children from participating in public elementary and secondary education. The Court heard arguments that sounded quite similar to those used to deny in-state college tuition for the same students: that providing K-12 education rewards illegal immigration, that we should not give public benefits to those in the country illegally. The significance of this case is not that it settled once and for all the ideological arguments surrounding immigration. Rather, the Court created protective legal precedent for minor undocumented students by carefully examining the intersection of immigration law, the distribution of public goods, and individual rights as protected by the Constitution of the United States.
The Supreme Court’s decision addressed the question: Did a child break the law because the parents brought the child into the country illegally as a minor? The Supreme Court said “no.”
The Court ruled that such children, in fact, were entitled to equal protection under the law, one of America’s most cherished legal principles. As cited in the Court’s opinion, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution provides that “[n]o State shall…deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
As a population within the state’s jurisdiction, undocumented students were, therefore, entitled to equal treatment under the law. In the opinion of the Court, Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr., wrote, “To permit a state … to identify subclasses of persons whom it would define as beyond its jurisdiction, thereby relieving itself of the obligation to assure that its laws are designed and applied equally to those persons, would undermine the principal purpose for which the Equal Protection Clause was incorporated in the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The Court further argued that federal immigration law, despite “sheer incapability or lax enforcement,” was not a justification for denying children equal protection and access to education.
In recognition of this principle, several state legislatures have passed laws to allow in-state postsecondary tuition for undocumented students who have attended public high schools in state for more than three years. They realize the legal “no-man’s land” these students occupy, and have sought to remedy it under the law.
The central relevance of the Supreme Court’s case to this debate over in-state tuition for undocumented students is that we cannot simply ignore what Justice Brennan called the “shadow population” of students who go about their daily lives and contribute to our society in the same way that we all strive to contribute. Moreover, we cannot deprive these students of the equal protection that our Constitution provides simply because they graduate from the high school setting where the Supreme Court has decided that it applies.
Though the issue is easy to weigh down with heated rhetoric, we hope that the law will, in fact, prevail, and that Congress will pass the DREAM Act. As Justice Brennan concluded, “[W]hatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the State, and the Nation.”
Competition among research universities for national ranking increasingly fuels a conflict between peer prestige and public purpose. Governors and legislators rail about public purpose, while professors and administrators rave about peer prestige. Can public research universities pursue both public purpose and peer prestige? (Can the University of Virginia meet the dual directive of its Board of Visitors to raise its proportion of economically disadvantaged students and its U.S. News & World Report ranking among national universities? ) As currently defined, achieving both goals remain an impossible dream, for public purpose is not a byproduct produced automatically while pursuing peer prestige.
Peer prestige suggests high standing in academic circles. Public purpose means serving the collective good. Defining prestige and purpose for state universities is too important to be left either to academics or the public, for each is better at defining wants than determining needs. Universities deliver both ends and means. They represent ends when discovering enduring ideas and insights and means when these discoveries spur innovations and inventions that improve our lives. Academics and the public must agree on an agenda that embraces both educational and societal needs.
Some leaders of government and business, and increasingly even presidents and professors, would leave prestige and purpose to the market. But market demands and the public good are not synonymous. Market demands are often short term and respond to individual wants, but public goods are usually long term and reflect collective needs. For example, markets -- through the salaries they generate -- favor physicians in the latest medical specialties, though society needs more primary care doctors and nurses. Markets encourage MBA research scientists, while society desperately needs science and math teachers. Rising markets often mark momentary fads, but public universities must continue critical programs that society needs. The nature of markets is to abandon the old in favor of the new, but higher education while discovering the new, should look for the lasting things in life.
Peer prestige represents the resource and reputation model of excellence, with its trinity of student selectivity, rich resources, and faculty reputations. That model relies mostly on inputs of students, resources, and professors and says little about the public purpose of the quality and quantity of graduates or the contribution of research and services to states and society. It depends more on the resources received than the results achieved and treats campuses like computers as mostly matters of good in, good out.
The resource and reputation model dominates the national rankings of colleges and universities. U.S. News & World Report devotes three quarters of its rating for national universities to this model: peer assessment (25 percent), faculty resources (20 percent), student selectivity (15 percent), spending per student (10 percent), and alumni giving (5 percent). A measure called retention does allocate 20 percent of the total score Unfortunately, on many campuses, retention results reflect admission standards more than improved performance. A criterion on graduation rate performance does control for student preparation and institutional resources, but it receives just 5 percent of the total score.
Public purpose is the defining characteristic of all public universities, but what does it entail? A review of the external demands on state universities reveals a long and daunting list. They must become more accessible to economically and educationally disadvantaged students and enroll a racially diverse student body without setting targets. Their tuition must remain affordable despite declines in state support and inadequate need-based financial aid. They should graduate the great majority of their students -- most of them in four years -- and demonstrate their growth in knowledge and skills from entry to exit. Public universities should actively assist the reform of public schools and produce graduates in critical fields who are prepared mentally and ethically for work and citizenship. Their research and public service should spur the economic growth and civic development of their states and communities.
The answer to the current conflict is not to abandon either peer prestige or public purpose but to broaden the first to cover the public mandate of state universities and to narrow the second to public needs, not wants. State universities should stop competing with private universities on student selectivity. Private universities can become as selective as their markets allow. The mandate of accessibility denies that choice to public universities. State universities should admit a range of undergraduates that past experience shows can succeed on their campuses. Provider-driven institutions will use all of the admission spots to raise their SAT or ACT scores, but public research universities should use some of those places to correct poor preparation that stems from economic disadvantage. Our nation has a growing gap between the prosperous and poor. Great public universities should close rather than reinforce that undemocratic divide. Is the price of a few points on entrance scores at public universities worth the social cost to American society? Can public research universities remain relevant while leaving the issue of equality and accessibility to community colleges and regional universities? Public research universities should also expand the criteria of prestige by assessing the value added of the knowledge and skills acquired by graduates and the impact of research and service on states and society. Surely, greatness for universities should depend more on what they produce than on what they receive.
All great universities must have a global reach, but public research universities, such as Berkeley, Michigan, and Virginia should also address state and regional problems. They must act locally as well as reach globally. Distance enhances peer prestige, but public purpose requires regional impact.
The time has come for state universities to break the hold of private universities on the hallmark of prestige. Something is radically wrong with college ratings -- such as U.S. News -- that rank 20 private schools before getting to Berkeley. The answer is not for Berkeley to become more like Harvard, but to be an even better Berkeley in fulfilling its public purpose. State university leaders publicly complain about the criteria of the rankings, but privately submit to its measures to raise their ratings.
The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges should appoint a Commission to develop criteria that reflect both academic quality and public purpose. Its membership should include business, civic, public school, and government leaders, as well as those from higher education. The areas for assessment should adopt those used by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in its biennial report, Measuring UP. That Report grades higher education in each state by measures in the categories of preparation, participation, affordability, completion, benefits, and learning. The national Commission should develop appropriate measures with trends over time in each of these categories for public research universities. Other groups should propose similar indicators for comprehensive universities and community colleges.
The category of preparation might include a measure on the percent of first year students with rigorous college preparatory courses in high school. Such a measure would stimulate school reform rather than stress student selectivity. Another indicator could include the number and quality of teachers graduated, especially in critical fields, such as science, math, and English as a second language. Participation should include the percent of college age students in the state enrolled by race, gender, and income. Trends in transfers from community colleges could check on their transition to baccalaureate degrees at the best public universities. Affordability might include a measure showing tuition and fees, minus financial aid, as a percent of state median family income. Completion should compare actual with predicted graduation rates based on student preparation and aptitude. Benefits might cover degrees granted in critical fields, as well the usual sponsored research and faculty publications. Student learning represents a challenging area. As a start, it might include evidence from surveys such as the National Survey on Student Engagement and alumni surveys that probe the value added in student learning. The categories proposed above are critical; the measures, merely examples.
The soul of state universities is surely worth saving. The current conflict pits peer prestige against public purpose. The time has come to design a new rating system for public research universities. That rating should rely less on what they receive in resources and more on their results in creating assessable universities as great in undergraduate education and public engagement as they are in faculty research. Saving the soul of public universities means raising their prestige to a higher standard—one that includes their public purpose.
Joseph C. Burke
Joseph C. Burke is director of the Higher Education Program at the Rockefeller Institute of Government of the State University of New York. He is editor and co-author of Fixing the Fragmented University: Decentralization with Direction, to be published this year by Anker Press.Â
Assessment will make higher education accountable. That’s the claim of many federal and state education policy makers, as illustrated by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Improved assessment has become for many the lever to control rising tuition and to inform the public about how much students might learn (and whether they learn at all). But many in higher education worry that assessment can become a simplistic tool -- producing data and more work for colleges, but potentially little else.
Has the politicization of assessment deepened the divide between higher education and the public? How can assessment play the role wished for by policy makers to gauge accountability and affordability and also be a powerful tool for faculty members and college presidents and provosts to use to improve quality and measure competitiveness? Successful policies will include practices that lead to confidence, trust and satisfaction -- confidence by faculty members in the multiple roles of assessment, trust by the public that assessment will bring accountability, and satisfaction by the leaders such as the presidents that assessment will restore the public’s confidence in higher education. A tall order to be sure, but we believe assessment – done correctly -- can play a pivotal role in the resolution to the current debate on cost and quality.
For confidence, trust and satisfaction to occur, higher education and public officials must each take two steps. Higher education must first recognize that public accountability is a fact and an appropriate expectation. This means muting the calls by public higher education for more autonomy from state and federal government based simply on the declining percent of the annual higher education budget provided by public sources. This argument may help gain the attention of policy makers regarding the financial conundrums in higher education but it is not a suitable argument against accountability. Between federal and state sources, billions of dollars have been invested in higher education over the nearly 150 years of public higher education. The public deserves to know that its investments of the past are being used well today -- efficiently and effectively.
In response, federal and state policy makers need to publicly embrace the notion advocated as early as 1997 that quality is based on “high standards not standardization.” Higher education’s differentiation is a great gift to America. The cornerstone of American higher education -- institutions with a diversity of missions -- is meeting the educational needs of different kinds of students with different levels of preparation and ability to pay. It is important to recognize that assessment must match and reinforce the pluralism of American higher education. America is graced with many different kinds of colleges -- private, public, religious, secular, research, etc. It is important to have an assessment system that encourages colleges and universities to pursue unique missions.
A second step is for higher education to make transparent the evidence of quality that the public needs in order to trust higher education. “Just trust us,” is no longer sufficient as higher education has flexed its independence in setting ever increasing tuition rates in spite of the public’s belief that it has been excessive. Trust is built on transparency of evidence not mere declarations of quality. Practically a few indicators of quality that cut across higher education are going to be required. For example, surrogate and indirect measures of learning and development captured by student surveys, amount of need-based financial assistance, dollars per student invested in advising services, and dollars per faculty member dedicated to instructional and curricular development are some possibilities. Public opinion is heavily on the side of legislators and members of Congress on this issue.
For public policy makers, it is imperative to accept the notion that to assess is to share the evidence and then to care. Caring requires action and support not just criticism. Public policy makers must educate themselves about the complexity of higher education teaching, research and public engagement. This means accepting that the indicators of quality of the work of the academy are complex, as they should be. Whatever indicators are chosen, the benchmarks will vary by type of college or university. Take graduation rates as an example. Inevitably, highly selective colleges and universities are much more likely to have higher graduation rates than those with access as a goal. The students being admitted to the highly selective colleges and universities already have demonstrated their ability to achieve and have the study skills and background to be successful in college. Open access colleges and universities, on the other hand, have a greater percentage of students who are at risk, need to develop study skills in college, and are in general less prepared for the riggers of college study when compared to those with high achievement records out of high school. But these characteristics -- which frequently also result in lower graduation rates -- do not make these colleges and universities inadequate or not worthy of public support. Many great thinkers have said that a nation can be judged by how it treats its poor; this same argument works for education. The goal for everyone is to do better, starting where the students are -- not where we would like them to be when admitted.
With both sides changing their approaches, the public and higher education can productively focus on how together they can use assessment as an effective tool to determine quality and foster improvement. In doing so, we offer eight recommendations that if followed can offer the faculty the confidence they demand that assessment is a valid tool for communicating the evidence of student learning and development, the presidents the satisfaction that when all is said and done, it will have been worth the effort, and the public the trust that higher education is responsive to its concerns.
1. Recognize that assessment can serve both those within the academy and those outside of it, but different approaches to assessment are required. Faculty members and students can use assessment to provide the feedback that creates patterns and provides insight for their own discussion and decision making. To them assessment is not to be some distant mechanical process far removed from teaching and learning. On the other hand, parents, prospective students, collaborators, and policy makers also can benefit from the results of assessment but the evidence is very different. Through institutional assessment, they can know that specific colleges and universities are more or less effective as places to educate students, which types of students they best serve, and the best fit for jointly tackling society’s problems.
2. Focus on creating a culture of evidence as opposed to a culture of outcomes. Language and terms are important in this endeavor. The latter implies a rigidity of ends, whereas the former reflects the dynamic nature of learning, student development and solution making. A “teaching for the test” mentality cannot be the goal for most academic programs. We know from experience that assessment strategies that have relied heaviest on external standardized measures of achievement have been inadequate to detect with any precision any of the complex learning and developmental goals of higher education, e.g. critical thinking, commitment, values.
3. Accept that measurement of basic academic and vocationally oriented skills and competences may be appropriate for segments of the student population. For example, every time we get on an airplane we think of the minimum (and hopefully) high standards of the training of the pilots and the rigorous assessment procedures that “guarantee” quality assurance.
4. Avoid generic comparisons between colleges and universities as much as possible. A norm-referenced approach to testing guarantees that one half of the colleges and universities will be below average. The goal is not to be above average on some arbitrary criterion, but to achieve the unique mission and purpose of the specific college and university. A better strategy is to build off one’s strengths -- at both the individual and institutional level. Doing so reinforces an asset rather than a deficit view of both individual and institutional behavior leading to positive change and pride in institutional purpose. In order to benchmark progress, identify similar institutions. Such practices will encourage more differentiation in higher education and work to stem the tide of institutions clamoring to catch up with or be like what is perceived as a more prestigious college or university. "Be what you are, do it exceptionally well, and we will do what we can to fund you" would be a good state education policy.
5. Focus on tools that assess a range of student talent, not just one type or set of skills or knowledge. Multiple perspectives are critical to portraying the complexity of students’ achievements and the most effective learning and development environments for the enrolled students. All components of the learning environment, including student experiences outside the classroom and in the community must be assessed. We must measure what is meaningful, not give meaning to what we measure or test. Sometimes simple quantitative data such as graduation rates and records of employments are sufficient and essential for accountability purposes. But to give a full portrayal of student learning and development and environmental assessment, many types of evidence in addition to achievement tests are needed. Sometimes portfolio assessment will be appropriate, and at other times standardized exams will be sufficient.
6. Connect assessment with development and change. Assessment has been most useful when driven by commitment to l earn, create and develop, not when it has been mandated for purposes of administration and policy making. Assessment is the means, not the end. It is an important tool to be sure, but it always needs to point to some action by the participating stakeholders and parties.
7. Create campus conversations about establishing effective environments for the desirable ends of a college education. Assessment can contribute to this discussion. In its best from, assessment focuses discussion, not make decisions. People do that, and people need to be engaged in conversations and dialogue in ways that they focus not on the evidence but the solutions. As we stated earlier, to assess is to share and care. When groups of faculty get together to discuss the evaluations of their students they initially focus, somewhat defensively, on the assessment evidence (and the biases inherent in such endeavors), but as they get to know and trust each other they focus on how to help each other to improve.
8. Emphasize assessment’s role in “value added” strategies. Assessment should be informing the various publics about how the educational experiences of students or of the institutional engagement in the larger society is bringing value to the students and society. All parties need to get used to the idea that education can be conceptualized and interpreted in terms of a return on investment. But this can only be accomplished if we know what we are aiming for. This will be different for each college and university and that is why the dialogue with policy makers is so crucial. For some, the primary goal of college will focus on guiding students in their self discovery and contributing to society; for others it will be more on making a living; for yet others on understanding the world in which we live.
When both the public and higher education accept and endorse the principle that assessment is less about compliance or standardization and more about sharing, caring and transparency, then confidence, trust and satisfaction will be more likely. We believe that higher education must take the lead by focusing on student learning and development and engage with the public in collaborative decision making. If not, policy makers may conclude that they have only the clubs of compliance and standardization to get higher education’s attention.
Larry Braskamp and Steven Schomberg
Larry A. Braskamp, formerly senior vice President for academic affairs at Loyola University Chicago, is professor of education at the university. Steven Schomberg, retired in 2005 as Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement and Institutional Relations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Wick Sloane filed this application for the Iowa presidency two days before the Iowa Board of Regents announced the collapse of the search. The original column, which we run here, holds up, though. Wick, still a reluctant nominee for the Harvard presidency, said he'd only add, "Compensation and country club memberships for presidents are not the point. Courage is the issue -- by regents and presidents -- courage to face the atrocious mess we've all made of public higher education."
I hereby apply for the presidency of the sensational University of Iowa. The cornerstone of my offer is that I apply as a low bidder. Qualified bidder, of course.
When, oh when, will a public Board of Regents write the accurate ad?
"Help! Public higher ed in peril! Low-income students screwed. Medicaid and prisons chewing up all the money. U.I. annual in-state tuition is $6,135, with federal Pell grants frozen at $4,050. No, we can't balance the budget with more research and out-of-state tuitions because the other 49 states have that same plan. Only candidates willing to lead with concrete ideas apply."
The great University of Iowa is within a few bushels of corn and soybeans of catastrophe. Press coverage has been handwringing that the current presidential pay of $300,000 or so and a house will never attract talent. All of us unlucky enough to live on the U.S. coasts count on the integrity of Iowa to keep the nation grounded with common sense and sane values. After all, the President of the United States settles for $400,000 and a house. That’s a big job, too.
The Iowa job specifications, which anyone could find from the university’s Web site, might as well be from Massachusetts or Oregon. The tone reiterates the U.S. party line: Public higher education is a fund drive and a few fat paychecks away from eternal bliss. “Our state university will be fine if… if it’s the ones across the state line that are cursed.” (Question: why do candidates who won’t return calls for posts paying less than $500,000 need the job spelled out in these tedious specifications?)
Every public search for a public university president strolls toward the same gallows: Higher and higher salaries, for faculty and administrators, to attract top talent; raise more money; more research funding; collect vast new revenues by attracting students paying out-of-state tuition. No mention of the colliding federal polices that guarantee state-to-state cannibalization by colleges and universities. In the Iowa specs, no requirement to respond to the three-alarm-fire report in September from the U.S. Department of Education Commission on the Future of Higher Education.
Ten candidates for the U.I. $500k-and-a-house presidency allegedly spent a weekend this month in furtive conversations in or around Chicago with or without members of the search committee. I write in empathy and exhortation. I can’t think of many jobs with more overwhelming responsibilities and difficult tradeoffs than public university regent or senior administrator. Isn’t, though, The Point of great education having the skills to frame the impossible and find some answers?
I’ll take the Iowa job for the lower of $250,000 and a house or half whatever compensation package is now on the table. No raises, no bonuses, no country club memberships. I do want the difference, though, for staff development, for faculty travel and research, and for scholarships. Check out the rules for service contracting for the Iowa Department of Administrative Services. Shouldn’t these low-cost principles apply for the U.I. presidency? Of course executive recruiters say high pay is the answer. Recruiters’ pay is a percentage of total compensation. As U.I. president, I’ll also propose eliminating federal tax benefits for any university or college paying a president more than $250,000 plus a house. The job is public service, a privilege, not a hedge fund. The cheers from families every graduation are the incentive pay.
I’ll ask to have ready, prior to arrival, a thorough, statistically sound survey of faculty, students and staff. What’s working? What’s not? Issues and aspirations. U.I. is huge. I’ll need to know quickly what really is on everyone’s minds. We’ll meet once a week and knock off as many concerns as we can each week.
I will sit down with my colleagues at the other Iowa universities and request that we create a plan for fair sharing of scarce state resources to ensure every Iowan has the skills for a successful 21st Century career, preferably in Iowa. Put penalties in my pay for joint accountability for educational accomplishment for every Iowa public university student. Flagships cannot just grab the easy stuff. I’ve seen too many social and political forces incent state flagships to work in their own interests, not for the total state. We will identify by name those Iowans who lack a solid education, and we will make measurable progress for them semester by semester. Dock my pay for failure here.
Funding, funding and funding is the president’s job. My second day, I’ll invite the Iowa Congressional delegation and state legislators to campus. What’s their thinking on federal Medicaid cutbacks to the states and their devastating effect on public higher education nationwide? I will duct tape my mouth shut and listen. No state university, let alone state university president, will survive without addressing the dysfunctional federal policies eroding access to higher education. I’ll send ahead the Web links to my credos on this issue. I am sure these Iowans will have better ideas than mine.
I will continue to exhort Midwestern higher education to be the voice for the nation. I was lucky enough in 2005 to work with the Midwestern provosts of the Committee on Institutional Collaboration (CIC). I was a Fellow for Higher Education Finance for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. My nudge to the weary then was to ask these fine provosts from the CIC universities to remember their home state, not just their home campus. Iowa. Illinois. Indiana. Ohio. Michigan. Pennsylvania. Wisconsin. The Congressional delegations that can rule the land, if someone will give the delegations a plan. A unified, consistent demand for federal education funding by all states is the strongest strategy. Cannibalism is the name for the current individual campus lobbying and earmarking.
The 2008 Iowa Caucuses? And the U.S. presidential primaries in CIC states that follow? The Iowa university presidents must lead off with the demand for a consistent, fair federal education policy to create a solid economy for this century. Yes, the great rustbelt industries of the G.I. Bill are struggling. But G.I. Bill education funding created the skills that set off the greatest economic boom in history. What plan will begin that boom for this century? The CIC and neighboring states are 117 electoral votes. (Tony New England has some fine colleges but only 34 electoral votes.) Who better than the next U.I. president to lead this discussion? Any public university presidents without a plan for the nation on the table are already well past the first act of their own Greek tragedy. Doomed. The chorus has spoken.
The Des Moines Register reported earlier this year on U.I. regent concerns about keeping candidate names secret and about whether finalists would even have on-campus interviews. A worry is that good candidates don’t want their current employer to know is one reason cited. Guys, anyway, in these lofty pay grades always crow. Be assured that some of the Chicago Ten are already using these Iowa caucuses for a pay raise at home.
Far from lurking in closed meetings, every candidate must address the campus and the state legislature and describe the terrifying facts facing U.S. public higher education. And how Iowa has to put the issues on the table, yesterday, and lead. Iowa would serve the nation by launching this discussion.
U.I. is a research university. Before the end of my first week, I’ll ask all the principal investigators if they’ll give me a day to answer a simple mystery no one will face down: Does U.S. higher education need another building? We have no idea what the total classroom capacity of the U.S. is period, let alone in relation to students already born. Classrooms are dark weekends and most evenings. The research situation is worse. Individual university studies show projections of growth in research funding. But the universities are all looking at the same data. How does current lab space and space under construction relate to new funding scenarios? We have no idea. I’d rather improve faculty salaries and student financial aid.
College athletics is an oxymoron and a resource sinkhole. On my third day, I will show how Iowa, without losing any fun, pride or entertainment, can turn collegiate athletics over to a national NGO. (As an NGO, the Federal Reserve System, with NCAA-like regions, is right there.) My plan is for all the same teams, conferences and bowl games. The university and college role, though, will just be collecting tuition and teaching classes for the athletes. The current national situation makes no more sense than the New York Yankees taking over New York City schools. That Iowans know this is obvious: The bow-tied Iowa Regent Chair Michael Gartner is principal owner of the Iowa Cubs. Is he proposing that the Cubs take over the Des Moines schools?
Searches are too solemn. As part of my interviews, I challenge Regent Gartner to a blindfolded, bow-tie tying contest during halftime of any Hawkeye game he chooses. Perhaps while the crowd serenades with the Iowa fight song.
What an ideal time for an Iowa-led education century in the United States. Harvard is history. I’m a nominee for that presidency, and Iowa is the better job. Harvard has a $29-billion endowment and no common sense. My favorite evidence: Harvard Yard is 31 feet above sea level. The university sits on the Charles River, an estuary, and all that brainpower has no plan for global warming.
On compensation, though, I do have my price. May I move the president’s office over to the sensational UI Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
Wick Sloane's Inside Higher Ed column, The Devil's Workshop, appears as needed. He is an end user of a higher education.