SADOW: College Performance Measures Are A Good Idea

As the federal government moves towards completion of a ratings system for higher education, Louisiana State University System President and Baton Rouge campus Chancellor F. King Alexander has become one of the louder advocates in favor of such a plan, last week penning an opinion piece praising the concept and often quoted on the matter. Past a certain point it’s a good idea, but up to that point and no farther it becomes an exercise in self-interest for academia.

Early in his second term Pres. Barack Obama shook up the insular world of higher education by proposing that federal aid to students be tied to some performance measures, in some ways like the system that states like Louisiana operate in terms of funding directly their state colleges. Since then the overall reaction within higher education has been negative, but pockets favorable at least to some changes have emerged, falling along two particular fault lines: whether the institution is for-profit and whether the institution is public, with for profit schools the least supportive and public schools the most, relatively speaking. This is because, as Alexander has implied, for-profit schools with disproportionately higher consumption of federal aid dollars – these for institutions and students now eclipsing federal discretionary spending on housing and community affairs, international affairs, energy and the environment, and transportation combined – but lower completion rates makes them “bad actors” that cast a negative view over all of higher education.

Even so, public schools have given lukewarm at best acquiescence to the idea, mainly because they are torn in the purposes that the ratings could perform. There seems consensus among them that they could live with tying simple metrics such as completion rates and proportions of graduates employed being reported and used for accountability purposes, even as some also want greater complexity added to any such index created, such as a measure of “readiness” where scores are adjusted favorably for a school the higher is the proportion of presumably less prepared students they admit.

But most are against apparently adding other indicators more directly related to consumer choice, such as after graduation average debt load, salaries, and employment figures in field of study, because they think such pieces of information will skew against them with the public. Here, Alexander has been one of the conspicuous few who supports inclusion of these kinds of measures.

And these are absolutely necessary. True, schools that have more emphasis on science and engineering will look better on these accounts, but if that’s “skew,” it’s appropriate because these jobs contribute more to society. It also does not mean there will be a headlong rush out of certain professions such as teaching or of the liberal arts because of the comparatively lower marks on these metrics, because schools geared more to these fields still will have students and as long as a marginal dollar can be made from these majors, even if they are fewer, a school can stay in business.

These consumer choice measures are necessary because without them schools can game the system by lowering standards, to jack up completion rates and employment rates (which would be affected only marginally by lower quality graduates because they could become employed disproportionately in jobs not requiring any college degree, mimicking the prototypical barista with a master’s degree in gender studies, and not have that count against the school). By introducing information about the value of these degrees in the market, it spurs quality in delivery. For example, while a bachelor’s degree in English prepares one for no defined career other than instruction concerning English, a quality program produces graduates who communicate and think critically well who can take those skills and apply them in a number of professions, and this will be reflected in future salaries.

Shielding itself from market forces has been a cottage industry of large parts of academia (with the partial exceptions of business programs and some in the sciences) ever since the federal government got involved in student grants and lending almost a half-century ago, and consumer choice statistics revealed would expose it more. And make it better, because the dirty secret is that for all of the loathing that goes on about for-profit schools, even with many being more expensive than the typical public school and with lower completion rates, theysteadily are increasing their proportion of college graduates at the expense of public and private schools, so they are doing something right in response to market forces.

Thus, an index of indicators that cover both accountability and consumer choice aspects – and not one diluted by political correctness such as rewards for increasing minority enrollments nor by a “readiness” measure as that only gives schools a crutch to fall back upon to write off lack of success with the less prepared – for information purposes would be outstanding. Tying it to federal financial aid is trickier, if only because that process needs reform of its own, but if done right also is not objectionable. Alexander is correct for stumping for these measures as appropriately conceptualized.

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