While there is heated debate over how best to fix America’s higher education system, everyone agrees on the need for meaningful reform. It’s difficult to argue against reform in the face of college attainment rates that are stalled at just under 40 percent and the growing number of graduates left wondering whether they will ever find careers that allow them to pay off their mounting debts.
Any policy debate should start with a clear picture of how the dollars are being spent and whether that money is achieving the desired outcomes. Unfortunately, a lack of accurate data makes it impossible to answer many of the most basic questions for students, families and policy makers who are investing significant time and money in higher education.
During the recent State of the Union address, President Obama talked about shaking up the system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value. Though he provided little detail, this most certainly referred to the broad vision for higher education reform he outlined over the summer centered around a new a rating system for colleges and universities that would eventually be used to influence spending decisions on federal student financial aid.
However, the President’s proposal rests on a data system that is imperfect, at best. As former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said of the President’s plan, “we need to start with a rich and credible data system before we leap into some sort of artificial ranking system that, frankly, would have all kinds of unintended consequences.”
The American Council on Education, which represents the presidents of more than 1,800 accredited, degree-granting institutions, including two- and four-year colleges, private and public universities, and nonprofit and for-profit entities, agrees on the need for better data as well.
A senior staff member at ACE has been quoted to say that “if the federal government develops a high-stakes ratings system, they have an obligation to have very accurate data,” and that he was “surprised that anyone would think it controversial that having such data is a prerequisite.”
In order to bridge the data gap, we introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which would make the complete range of comparative data on colleges and universities easily accessible to the public online and free of charge by linking student-level academic data with employment and earnings data.
For the first time, students, and policy makers, would be able to accurately compare -- down to the institution and specific program of study -- graduation and transfer rates, frequency with which graduates go on to pursue higher levels of education, student debt and post-graduation earnings and employment outcomes. Such a linkage is the best feasible way to create this data-rich environment.
None of these metrics is currently available to those seeking to evaluate a school or program, though plenty of misleading data are out there.
For example, Marylhurst University, a small liberal arts school in Oregon, was assessed with a 0 percent graduation rate by the U.S. Department of Education. This is because the department's current metrics account only for first-time, full-time students, and Marylhurst serves nontraditional students who are part time or have returned to school later in life. Schools like this that serve nontraditional students -- who now make up the majority of all students -- don’t get credit for their success, at least not according to current federal evaluations.
With so many in the higher education community bemoaning the lack of quality data, and clear solutions forward on how to attain better data, why hasn’t it happened?
A major part of the answer: institutional self-interest. Every school in the country has widely disparate performance outcomes depending on the category, and many college presidents are in no hurry to make their less-than-appealing outcome data available for public scrutiny.
There’s a fear that students and families will vote with their pocketbooks and choose different schools that better meet their needs. The abundance of inaccurate and incomplete data provides institutional leaders with a line of defense: so long as such data are the norm upon which they are ranked and rated, they can defend themselves on the basis of flawed methodology.
Not all schools fear the implications of better quality data; in fact, many schools crave these data and want them made public. They know they’ll stack up well against their competition.
Moreover, many schools realize that getting better data is critical to helping identify what’s working and what’s not for their students in order to build stronger programs. Nevertheless, some of the “Big Six” higher education associations still cling to the status quo and represent a key challenge to realizing these commonsense reforms.
It is long past time for these important actors to look away from their self-interest and toward what’s in America’s collective interest -- a future where higher education produces better outcomes for students and the economy -- by supporting the Know Before You Go Act.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is an Oregon Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is a Florida Republican.
Last month the White House hosted a higher education summit to draw attention to the problem of college attainment among low-income students. The summit focused in particular on “undermatching,” in which high-achieving, low-income students fail to apply to highly selective colleges, and instead attend less competitive institutions.
It is without question that all students deserve a chance to attend a college that will give them the best shot in life, and I applaud efforts to better inform students about their choices. However, while we are rightly concerned about directing more underserved students to selective colleges, we should also recognize that sending more students to these colleges will not improve the overall quality of our higher education system.
The reality is that even in a perfectly matched world, millions of low-income, minority, first-generation, and immigrant students will continue to enroll in community colleges. If we want to improve educational outcomes among these groups of students, then we need to improve the colleges so many of them will attend.
Community colleges have been extremely successful at opening the doors to college for disadvantaged students, but thus far, they have had less success in helping them graduate. Less than 40 percent of students who start in community colleges complete a credential in six years. The success rates are worse for low-income and minority students.
So how can community colleges deliver better quality for their students? It will not be easy. Over the last 15 years, faculty and administrators have worked tirelessly to implement reforms in teaching and support services. These efforts have failed to raise completion rates.
A critical reason for this disappointing outcome is that reform initiatives have focused too narrowly on one aspect of the student experience, such as entry, remedial education or the first semester. While many initiatives have led to some success for targeted students, these improvements have been too small and too short-lived to affect overall college performance.
Research conducted by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College and others makes abundantly clear that improving services like developmental education is necessary but not sufficient: the entire student community college experience must be strengthened.
Some community colleges are beginning to recognize this imperative, and are entering a new phase of far more comprehensive and transformative reform. In particular, some are at the forefront of implementing what CCRC terms the guided pathways model.
That approach responds to the fact that most community college students need far more structure and guidance; it attends to all aspects of the student experience, from preparation and intake to completion. The model includes robust services to help students choose career goals and majors. It features the integration of developmental education into college-level courses and the organization of the curriculum around a limited number of broad subject areas that allows for coherent programs of study. And, importantly, it stresses the strong, ongoing collaboration between faculty, advisers and staff.
Initiatives such as the Gates-funded Completion by Design and Lumina's Finish Faster are advancing such comprehensive reforms by helping colleges and college systems create clear course pathways within programs of study that lead to degrees, transfer and careers.
The new Guttman Community College at the City University of New York (CUNY) -- perhaps the most ambitious example of a comprehensive approach to the community college student experience -- incorporates many elements of the guided pathways model. And CUNY’s ASAP program, which like Guttman takes a holistic approach to student success, has significantly improved associate degree completion rates.
Ambitious and comprehensive reforms are rare for good reason -- they are risky and difficult to implement. But they also offer the possibility of transformative improvement. Our frustration with the progress of reform in community colleges is not because skilled and dedicated people have not tried; rather, the reforms themselves have been self-limiting.
President Obama has rightly asked the nation to attend with renewed urgency to the problem of college attainment among low-income students. But the focus on undermatching is driven partly by a perception that the distribution of quality among colleges and universities is and will remain fixed.
This need not be so. Bold, large-scale reforms can improve institutions across the higher education system so that no matter where our neediest students enroll, they are ensured the best possible chance of success.
Thomas Bailey is director of the Community College Research Center at Teacher's College Columbia University.
About one month ago, President Obama announced plans for sweeping changes in higher education. In short, he wants the system to be much more efficient, affordable, and timely. Numerous reports have indicated the cost of higher education has increased at rapid rates. Bloomberg indicated that since I started college in 1985, the cost has risen by 500 percent.
This is a complex problem. Our health care provider told us to expect a 19 percent increase this year. Technology upgrades mean additional costs. The reality is while we are a nonprofit, nothing is slowing the for-profits interested in greater profit margins. But I understand the president’s concerns.
Yet as I heard President Obama share ideas about measuring the effectiveness of institutions as a solution, I was concerned. I agree that assessment is essential. We need to make sure we are delivering on what we promise. But my concern is how will these metrics be developed, and will they really be able to consider all of the factors that impact student success and institutional performance?
As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his team begin their work, I would like to propose a competitive diving approach to college assessment. In diving, you receive a raw score from 1 to 10 based on dive execution. That score is averaged by the judges, then multiplied by the degree of difficulty for the overall score.
Most of the rankings that exist, particularly those of U.S. News & World Report, measure inputs dependent upon wealth so that quality is determined by whom you serve rather than what you do with them. Essentially, the fewer Pell Grant, part-time, nontraditional and students of color you serve, the better your outcomes.
Elite colleges, which educate those who received the best high school educations and who frequently have plenty of money, serve students who have the right inputs ,which almost guarantee high retention and graduation rates, low debt, and high employment.
But, in order to be fair, any new rating system must calculate the degree of difficulty when examining the metrics. For example, reviewing data for the last three years available, the smaller a share of the student body made of Pell Grant eligible students a college has, the better the graduation rate.
In fact, decades of research prove this point. The difference is significant as well. For 2011, as an example, the graduation rate for baccalaureate nonprofit colleges was 52 percent. For colleges with fewer than 20 percent Pell grant recipients (generally households earning less than $40,000 a year), the graduation rate was 79 percent. It dropped to 56 percent for colleges with 21-40 percent Pell students, and then to 42 percent for institutions with 41-60 percent Pell students. For those where more than 60 percent were Pell grant recipients, the graduation rate was 31 percent.
Colleges with less than 20 percent Pell students had few part-time, nontraditional and underrepresented students of color. Colleges with more than 60 percent Pell students had twice as many part-timers, five times as many nontraditionals, and almost six times as many underrepresented students of color.
And yet most rankings have lauded the first group for providing a great education. They essentially have done simple dives -- forward in a tuck position off a 1-meter springboard which has a degree of difficulty of 1.2 (based on USA diving). Meanwhile, many colleges attempt a back 4 1/2 somersaults in a tuck position off a 3-meter springboard, degree of difficulty 4.6. The problem is, we don’t get the degree of difficulty factored in. Only the raw score is calculated and we’re determined to be lesser institutions.
If President Obama’s plan to overhaul higher education is to have any credibility, there must be a degree of difficulty factor. In fact, there should be some other factors as well if there is to be any equity in this process. If colleges will be evaluated on the earnings of graduates, will the methodology take into account that women earn 77 percent of what men do, and this would disproportionately penalize women’s colleges and those with high proportions of women? Will the rankings factor in students who had to leave college because the government changed Parent PLUS loan eligibility?
The skepticism is widespread because we’ve watched numbers being used without proper context. For example, the highly touted White House College Scorecard was launched in February as a great step in accountability. For my institution, the graduation rate was listed as 24 percent. That looks atrocious. And yet, nothing on that webpage indicated that rate was based on freshmen who started in August of 2005, a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina made the campus unusable for almost one year. Eight years later we are finally opening all previously closed buildings.
We lost half that freshman class after one year, and large numbers of sophomores and juniors. The simple analysis presented on the scorecard paints a damaging picture. If consequences are then attached without all factors being weighed, this becomes an attack on a college.
The point is there has to be serious analysis with the broadest range of institutions at the table as this rating is developed. If all the factors are not considered, we end up with a simplistic one-size-fits-all that harms many institutions and their students. I know President Obama does not want that to be part of his legacy.
We are diving into a new territory to rate colleges. I just hope we’ll use diving's scoring as well.
Walter M. Kimbrough is president of Dillard University.