You'd have been hard pressed to attend a major higher education conference over the last year where the work of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education and the U.S. Education Department's efforts to carry it out were not discussed. And they were rarely mentioned in the politest of terms, with faculty members, private college presidents, and others often bemoaning proposals aimed at ensuring that colleges better measure the learning outcomes of their students and that they do so in more readily comparable ways.
The annual meeting of the Career College Association, which represents 1,400 mostly for-profit and career-oriented colleges, featured its own panel session Thursday on Education Secretary Margaret Spellings' various "higher education initiatives," and it had a very different feel from comparable discussions at meetings of public and private nonprofit colleges. The basic theme of the panelists and the for-profit college leaders in the audience at the New Orleans meeting was: "What's the big deal? The government's been holding us accountable for years. Deal with it."
Ronald S. Blumenthal, vice president for operations and senior vice president for administration at Kaplan Higher Education, who moderated the panel, noted that the department's push for some greater standardization of how colleges measure the learning and outcomes of their students is old hat for institutions that are accredited by "national" rather than "regional" accreditors, as most for-profit colleges are. For nearly 15 years, ever since the Higher Education Act was renewed in 1992, national accreditors have required institutions to report placement rates and other data, and institutions that perform poorly compared to their peers risk losing accreditation.
"These are patterns that we've been used to for more than 10 years," said Blumenthal, who participated on the Education Department negotiating panel that considered possible changes this spring in federal rules governing accreditation. "But the more traditional schools have not done anything like that, and they don't want to. They say it's too much work, and they don't have the infrastructure. We had to implement it, and we did did implement it. So what if it's more work?," he said, to nods from many in the audience.
Geri S. Malandra of the University of Texas System, another member of the accreditation negotiating team and a close adviser to Charles Miller, who headed the Spellings Commission and still counsels department leaders, said that nonprofit college officials (and the news media, she suggested) often mischaracterized the objectives of the commission and department officials as excessive standardization.
"Nobody was ever saying, there is one graduation rate for everyone regardless of the program," Malandra said. "You figure out for your sector what makes sense as the baseline. No matter how that's explained, and by whom, the education secretary or me, it still gets heard as one-size-fits-all, a single number, a 'bright line' " standard. "I don't think it was ever intended that way."
The third panelist, Richard Garrett, a senior analyst at Eduventures, an education research and consulting company, said the lack of standardized outcomes measures in higher education "can definitely be a problem" in terms of gauging which institutions are actually performing well. "It's easy to accuse all parts of higher education of having gone too far down the road of diversity" of missions and measures, Garrett said.
"On the other hand," said Garrett, noting that American colleges have long been the envy of the world, "U.S. higher education isn't the way it is because of standardization. It is as successful as it is because of diversity and choice and letting a thousand flowers bloom," he said, offering a voice of caution that sounded a lot like what one might have heard at a meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities or the American Federation of Teachers.