State policy

Texas-Size Compromise

Smart Title: 
U. of Texas chancellor's plan to improve accountability and productivity receives praise from several directions, a rarity in the state these days.

Reign of the Politician-Chancellor

Smart Title: 
Former lawmakers in public-university leadership roles show Gov. Rick Perry's influence in shaping Texas' higher education institutions.

Freedom at a Price

Smart Title: 
Ohio governor's plan to deregulate state universities could spark another round of divisive debates.

Does Performance Funding Work?

Smart Title: 
Study finds little impact of state formulas that tie colleges' funds to outcomes -- but asserts that expanded programs might work.

Budgets Half Empty, Glass Half Full

Smart Title: 
While many public colleges will see state appropriations cut upwards of 10 percent, officials say the cuts aren't as bad as they could have been given the pressures facing lawmakers.

Robbing Peter

In March, the new governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, announced a 2011-12 budget that, when combined with the loss of federal stimulus money, would reduce funding to public schools by $1.2 billion dollars, and funding to higher education by $649 million. My own institution, Pennsylvania State University, stood to lose $169 million, or about 51 percent of its state appropriation. As our president, Graham Spanier, pointed out, such cuts "would be the largest percentage reduction to public higher education in this nation's history."

Other states, of course, have faced similar budget shortfalls and have also responded with cuts to education, especially higher education. What happened next in Pennsylvania, though, dramatizes the new and distressing choices that states will have to face, and institutions of higher education have to live with, so long as the economy drifts along, state finances remain a sea of red ink, and tax increases are off the table.

In Pennsylvania, deciding on a budget is more like a game of bridge than a game of solitaire. The governor merely makes the opening bid. Ultimately, the legislature gets to review and pass the budget, which then goes to the governor for approval. So when leaders of the state and state-related institutions of higher education learned of the governor’s proposed cuts, they descended upon the state capital to plead their case to legislators. And it worked. Sort of.

In early May, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, offered a revised budget. The good news? The House Republicans restored $243 million of the $1.2 billion proposed cuts to public schools, and $370 million of the $649 million that higher education stood to lose under the governor’s budget. Instead of losing 51 percent of its state appropriation, for example, Penn State would lose 21 percent, which is still bad, but not historically bad. The bad news was that in order to keep overall spending in line with the number the governor proposed, House Republicans made cuts elsewhere in the budget, mostly to public welfare programs.

Republicans claim that much of the funds cut from public welfare would come mainly from reducing fraud, waste, and abuse, but many are skeptical that instances of fraud, waste, and abuse add up to the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be taken from these programs. Rather, many observers agree that the cuts to the Department of Public Welfare would mean, as one journalist recently itemized them, reductions in "the amount of money for hospitals that treat the poor, families seeking subsidized child care, shelters that aid women and the homeless and counseling for families, children, and the mentally ill."

If this budget passes, and these cuts do in fact go deeper than just fraud, waste, and abuse, then faculty, staff, and students at institutions of higher education in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania face a potentially Dickensian scene. Under the House budget, they will likely still suffer from layoffs, the closing of academic programs, larger class sizes, and perhaps even higher tuition levels. But whatever cuts and inconveniences those in higher education face will be minimized only because somewhere a sexually abused child, instead of receiving immediate counseling, would go on a waiting list to receive counseling. Or because somewhere a low-income family would have to scrape together a co-payment for a medical procedure they used to not have to pay. Or because somewhere a family lost its home to foreclosure because the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network could not provide them with a lawyer. Or because somewhere someone gets dropped from the Medicaid rolls. You have to wonder how we will live with ourselves.

Of course, the Pennsylvania budget process merely highlights the kind of zero-sum decisions that characterize any allocation of public money. When resources are limited, even worthy endeavors — higher education, rape counseling, services to persons with disabilities — will have to compete for funding. Still, such competitions usually remain tactfully concealed behind closed doors. When, however, they are made public and you can see horses being traded, it is hard to feel good about support for one worthy cause when it means taking resources from another.

Indeed, my own interest in the dispute, beyond the considerable self-interest of seeing funding restored to my institution of higher education, lies in how the debate about the Pennsylvania budget has pitted education against welfare. In an op-ed for our local newspaper, Representative Mike Hanna, a Democrat, called the Republican budget "a shell game, filled with false choices: Do we choose to hurt kids in public schools or seniors in nursing homes? Do we choose to hurt college students or single mothers? Do we choose to cut teaching jobs or nursing home jobs?"

Others sounded a similar theme. "We need to advance this process by not trading one child need for another child need," Joan L. Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, said. And Pennsylvania Democrat Frank Dermody helpfully offered the chestnut everyone was probably already thinking. "It’s simply not right," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It's nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Dermody and others, though, are more right than they know. In paying for education by robbing from welfare, legislators in Pennsylvania have merely solved one problem by creating another. But the problems are not as separate as they might seem. You cannot rob Peter to pay Paul because, in this case at least, Peter is Paul.

Let me put it another way. In the course of completing a recent book, I immersed myself in the literature of the educational achievement gap: the persistent differences in educational performance that separate various gender, racial, and socioeconomic groups. And what I learned is that to an astonishing extent, a child's educational outcome depends upon his or her family's income. Don’t think so? Consider the results from the latest round of major international tests of student learning. As Joanne Barkin recently reported, students in the United States who attend schools where the poverty rate is less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math.

Students who attended schools where the poverty rate was slightly higher, between 10 and 25 percent, still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate of a school rose, its students performed worse and worse. For example, 20 percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75 percent. Few countries can match those rates. And it is those schools — and those students — that drive down the average ranking of American students, and it is those middling rankings that send educational reformers into a panic.

Despite what those reformers would have you believe, though, the United States does not have an education problem. It has a poverty problem. People grow up to be poor because they did not get an education. But it is also the case that they did not get an education because they grew up poor. Something about growing up in poverty — the stress, the low birth weights, the parenting style, and later the doubts about being able to afford college — makes acquiring an education difficult if not impossible. Still don’t think so? How about the fact that of all those who earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24, only 1 out of every 10 will come from families in the lowest quartile of income? By contrast, over half will come from families in the top quartile.

So critics like Mike Hanna are right to call the revised Pennsylvania budget "a shell game, full of false choices." Except the choices are false not because we should not have to make them, or because — as Hanna asserts — there is enough revenue to meet both needs. The choices are false because if you care about education, enough to think that draconian cuts to it should be avoided, you have to care about people’s welfare as well. In addition to offering much-needed services, social welfare programs like the ones under threat also allow low- and middle-income families to keep the money they would otherwise spend on those needed services. In addition to helping people, they also help people’s bottom lines, in some cases keeping people out of poverty or making poverty more manageable. Conversely, when families do not get the help they need, or are made poorer when they have to pay out of pocket for the help they need, their lives, including the educational lives of their children, suffer.

Unfortunately, there is no painless solution to the budget dilemma, either in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. Representative Hanna and other Democrats want to tap a $500 million budget surplus that, incredibly, the commonwealth collected over and beyond what it expected to. In theory, it would also collect these funds next year. The governor and House Republicans, however, oppose drawing on this so-called rainy day fund. My former state, Illinois, raised income taxes to meet its budget needs, but that seems unlikely in Pennsylvania, where the governor has pledged not to raise taxes. Many people in the commonwealth support taxes on the highly profitable — and environmentally suspect — natural gas industry, but that too seems unlikely.

Having recently passed the House, the Pennsylvania budget will soon make its way to the Senate. Here is hoping that legislators understand that education and welfare go hand in hand — and that in robbing from one to pay the other, you really end up robbing from both.

Author/s: 
John Marsh
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

John Marsh is assistant professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. His new book, Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality, will be published next month by Monthly Review Press.

Intellectual Entrepreneurship: The New Social Compact

Public research universities face enormous challenges in the 21st century: waning fiscal support, a loss of public confidence, and a persistent lack of diversity. Perhaps no challenge is more compelling, however, than the obligation to serve society. The time has come for increased commitment to and removal of barriers preventing collaborative, interdisciplinary, socially relevant research and learning.

Unfortunately, too often service is portrayed exclusively as "volunteerism," a university's third function, and interdisciplinary scholarship is viewed as less rigorous than and at odds with disciplinary knowledge. So conceived, service is destined to take a back seat to research and teaching and interdisciplinary initiatives at best become supplements or add-ons which compete for time and money and are incapable of fixing structural flaws in the way knowledge is arranged and delivered. The result is a lost opportunity for "academic engagement": collaboration across disciplines and partnerships with the community that might produce solutions to society's most vexing problems.

Pursuing academic engagement necessitates radically rethinking "service" and "knowledge," finding innovative mechanisms to organize and leverage academe's intellectual capital to transform lives for the benefit of society. It requires us to acknowledge that a university's collective wisdom is among its most precious assets -- anchored to, but not in competition with, basic research and disciplinary knowledge -- and that part of the significance of such wisdom is tied to its use.

While redefining and implementing more robust notions of service and knowledge will be arduous, the payoff could be enormous. Fortunately, there is a movement afoot at many public research institutions across the nation, a movement to bring higher education out of the 19th into the 21st century. With rising tuition, limited access to the nation's best universities, and increasingly complex social problems, many recognize that the need for public institutions to find meaningful ways to serve the citizens of their states is more important than ever. Universities must fulfill a social compact with their states. 

At my own institution, the University of Texas at Austin, a critical mass of faculty embrace this compact: academics best described as "intellectual entrepreneurs," citizen-scholars supplying more than narrow, theoretical disciplinary knowledge. They exemplify academic engagement, taking to heart the ethical obligation to contribute to society, to both discover and put to work knowledge that makes a difference.

Among them are a philosopher helping to increase the role played by ethics in corporate decision making, a neurobiologist and pharmacologist struggling to bring personal and public policies in line with scientific knowledge about alcohol addiction, a theater historian attempting to use performance as a mechanism through which ordinary people can change their lives, and a literary scholar who uses poetry to enable those in business and government to imagine what is possible.  

In 2004-5 these and several other faculty, along with distinguished members of the community (including the U.S. secretary of commerce, the chancellor the University of Texas System, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the executive VP and COO of a major health-care network), contributed to a series in the local newspaper exploring how to engender greater connections between the university and community to address society's most troublesome issues.
 
The arguments advanced by these writers may reflect some of what President Larry Faulkner had in mind in his February 13, 2005 speech the American Council on Education, when he called for a new "social compact." Confronting this quest to contribute to society and realize the ethical imperative to make a difference, however, is a stark reality: Inflexible administrative structures, historically embedded practices, status quo thinking and inertia. Until these obstacles are overcome, the current retreat from public life will not be arrested and the new social compact envisioned by President Faulkner will not be realized. 

Among the daunting challenges confronting universities aspiring to intellectual entrepreneurship and the resulting academic engagement are these:

  • How do scholars, who live primarily in a world of ideas, acquire the practical (e.g., rhetorical, business, design, technological, etc.) tools needed to develop and sustain projects requiring acceptance and investment by audiences both inside and outside the university -- skills typically disassociated from the scholarly enterprise?
  • How can faculty integrate, synthesize and unify knowledge to permit solution of complex social, civic and ethical problems? This is an enormous challenge in an academic culture that the former Brown University President Vartan Gregorian says "respects specialists and suspects generalists." How do we ensure the continued proliferation of specialized knowledge, while concurrently encouraging renaissance thinking?
  • How can faculty who engage in public scholarship -- who undertake projects like those pursued by the philosopher, literary scholar, theatre historian, neurobiologist and pharmacologist, described above -- flourish given restricted measurements for assessing performance enforced by universities and academic disciplines (e.g., journal publications tailored to small and insular audiences)? Incentive systems not only fail to encourage public scholarship, but may actually devalue research that doesn't fit neatly into the academic geography of one's home discipline and simultaneously contributes to society. What changes to institutional reward structures are requisite for academic engagement?
  • How can faculty maintain standards of academic integrity and objectivity, while participating in community projects in which they may become ideologically vested, serve as change agents or directly profit?
  • How should academic institutions adjust their methods for discovering and imparting knowledge in an ever-changing world?  Because historically original thought, lone discovery and disciplinary contribution have been considered more important than team work, what changes are needed to address effectively 21st century problems?  Complex issues such as health, the environment, education, cultural diversity and others demand multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary and collaborative forms of investigation.
  • How can academic engagement be achieved in an environment maintaining that research is two-dimensional, either basic or applied, a long-held, rigid dichotomy frequently invoked to deter faculty from venturing too far from theoretical knowledge?
  • How might the entrepreneurial thinking that universities successfully deploy for technology transfer analogously be used to empower all of the arts and sciences, to unleash a university-wide spirit of intellectual entrepreneurship? How might this agenda be pursued while remaining vigilant to the sanctity of the academic enterprise?
  • How can the university better apply its morally centered quest for truth to matters of public concern? How can it encourage public deliberation that benefits from many different opinions and challenges to received wisdom, without being perceived as relativistic or unpatriotic?

These are but a few challenges to intellectual entrepreneurship. Answers to these questions, which for so long have remained unarticulated, will not be easy to come by and cannot possibly be answered via the lone contribution of an essayist. Because awareness and diagnosis of the problem is the first step to solution, university presidents and their community stakeholders must encourage faculty to begin a rigorous and thoughtful conversation about how to make the academy -- culture that far too often resists change -- more responsive to the needs of society and structured in a manner best suited for the 21st century knowledge industry.

It is time for us to reflect on what must be done to harness and integrate the vast intellectual assets of universities as a lever for social good -- about what it will take to bring academics together on equal footing with those in the public and private sectors, collaboratively producing, jointly owning and using knowledge to change people's lives and improve the human condition.

To be clear, this quest to build a new social compact must not become a platform for disgruntled and gadfly faculty -- something that, as we witnessed in the debates of prior decades about teaching versus research, will make it far too easy for the reticent and nay sayers among us to dismiss the call for intellectual entrepreneurship as merely the diatribe of failed scholars who would have us abandon the research focus of universities. Instead, this topic should be pursued vigorously by our institutions' most prominent researchers who, while understanding the distinctive mission of academic institutions, also recognize the need to build connections across disciplines and between the university and community, and who refuse to apologize for being scholars. After all, creating a culture of academic engagement requires accountability and collaborative problem-solving in forthright public exchanges about how to enact change.

Public intellectual practice is a noble quest -- one that doesn't inherently or automatically require us to choose between a commitment either to research or service or between disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge.  President Faulkner's suggestion of the need for a new social compact, therefore, may be prophetic. In this spirit, I challenge university presidents and community leaders to set the tone: to create and lead conversations exploring how best to forge new, productive, synergistic connections between universities and society. Together we can make academic engagement more the rule than the exception; through collaboration, intellectual entrepreneurship will become a defining characteristic of our academic brand name, designating our institutions as truly innovative and exemplary sites of learning in this century.

Author/s: 
Richard A. Cherwitz
Author's email: 
spaj737@uts.cc.utexas.edu

Richard A. Cherwitz is professor of communication studies and rhetoric and composition, and founder and director of the intellectual entrepreneurship program at the University of Texas at Austin. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the January 17, 2005 issue of The Scientist.

Predictability and Its Costs

The chancellor of the State University of New York proposed Thursday that the state adopt a new tuition policy: Each year, tuition would go up for freshmen by the rate of the Higher Education Price Index (an inflation measure for colleges), and then be frozen for those students for four years.

The proposal, modeled on a 2003 Illinois law, is likely to be popular politically. Students and parents hate the unpredictability of tuition increases. In New York, as in many other states, tuition may remain relatively level for a few years, followed by years of double-digit increases. Pure luck can determine whether a family gets by with relatively flat rates or massive bills.

SUNY's chancellor, Robert L. King, says his plan would "protect" students and their families from such increases. But a look at the history of state tuition policies  suggests that the protection may not be all it appears.

States regularly adopt tuition policies, limiting the rate of increase or even freezing tuition, and lift those policies during the same kinds of financial crises that prompt states to adopt double-digit tuition increases. If King's policy wins approval, it could easily be undone the next time the state faces a deficit and the governor doesn't want to raise taxes (a not infrequent event).

More broadly, the Illinois plan prompted some concern in that state that colleges would seek to set their rates artificially high, so they could cover unanticipated expenses during the four years that a given class would be assured the same rate. Colleges have many set expenses: Professors must be paid, libraries stocked, buildings heated and maintained, etc. In theory, King's plan would also require the state to keep up support for the university system. But if that doesn't happen, does the university system cut back or renege on its pledge to students?

And there's one other question, too: Tuition predictability is great for families with decent levels of income and savings. But does a plan like this really do anything for those for whom the only thing predictable about tuition is that they can't afford it?

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in New York. Judging from
this report,  the debate will be fun to watch.

Author/s: 
Scott Jaschik
Author's email: 
scott.jaschik@insidehighered.com

Accountability, Improvement and Money

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.

Differing Directions

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. 

Author/s: 
John V. Lombardi
Author's email: 
lombardi@umass.edu

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.

Grade Inflation and Abdication

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.

Author/s: 
John V. Lombardi
Author's email: 
lombardi@umass.edu

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - State policy
Back to Top