Issue #15, Winter 2010

That Old College Lie

Are our colleges teaching students well? No. But here’s how to make them.

All of these factors combine to give colleges many reasons to raise prices and very few to lower them. To be sure, institutions occasionally try to hold prices down and market themselves as a good value (although this is difficult when the information deficit leads consumers to believe that price and quality are one and the same). But the long-term trend is unmistakable. Average inflation-adjusted college prices have more than doubled in the last two decades. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education recently found that the total increase in college tuition from 1983 to 2007 (439 percent) far outpaced the rise in median family income (147 percent) and even the medical care costs (251 percent) that are threatening to bankrupt the nation.

Information, Please

Price increases without end are bad enough. They’re made worse by the fact that the information deficit also has a pernicious impact on the quality of classroom teaching. In part, this manifests itself in spending priorities. For the reputation-maximizing university administrator on the make, the best things to buy are visible: new buildings, elaborate student fitness centers, renowned scholars who don’t actually teach undergraduates, Division I basketball teams. But there are no ribbon-cutting ceremonies for hiring better teachers, and office workers across the country don’t fill out photocopied tournament brackets for college learning every March.

The information deficit also acts as a powerful impediment to reform. Anyone who has ever attended college knows that many college teachers are terrible at their jobs. Universities like to pretend that great scholars make great instructors, but one indifferent, outdated lecture from a tenured professor is enough to conclude otherwise. Because scholarly outcomes are visible, in the form of publications and citations, while teaching outcomes are currently not, colleges privilege the former above the latter. Tenure-track professors are routinely discouraged from spending too much time teaching, lest students distract from the mandate to publish. Legitimate evaluations of professorial teaching skill are practically unknown.

Putting the scholarly and teaching missions in better balance would require a confrontation with traditionally autonomous academic departments. That inevitably creates controversy, and controversy is poisonous in a market that depends so heavily on hazy, decades-old reputations. As economist and longtime college professor Robert Martin recently wrote,

Reputation maximization leads to a bias against reform…Pointing out problems leads to controversies, and controversies damage reputations; hence, reform damages reputations…to the present generation of administrators, faculty, and trustees, the cost of a diminished future reputation is small, while the cost of a diminished current reputation is high…Controversies always suggest that something is wrong.

This reform-resistant environment exists only because institutional reputations are so disconnected from learning. If bad teaching created negative publicity or materially affected the ability of college presidents to recruit students and raise money from alumni, presidents would have much stronger incentives to tackle reform head-on. Right now those incentives don’t exist, which is one reason why less than a third of college graduates are literate in the best sense of the word.

The solution is to gather much more comparable, publicly available information about teaching and learning. That would allow institutions to pursue a robust, value-based marketing strategy, to make the case that their learning results meet or exceed other, more expensive competitors’. It would also open up the market to new competition. Information-poor, reputation-driven markets penalize new entrants, who have to wait for public perception to catch up with reality. This is particularly difficult when the industry leaders opened up shop in the seventeenth century. Online higher education offers new avenues for competition, and that segment of the industry is rapidly expanding. But lack of information about learning is hurting students by creating ample space for charlatans and scam artists to operate while simultaneously tarring the best online educators with the taint of the unproven and new.

Lastly, transparency would allow the great mass of institutions built in the last 60 years finally to come into their own. They’ve spent their whole existence looking up to their forebears as the ancient institutions grew steadily richer and more famous in our winner-takes-all society. They could never prove they were as good as–or even better than–the old colleges, because the rules of reputation were rigged against them. So they lagged in attracting students, funding, and public support. Elite colleges and flagship public universities were showered with resources while community colleges and regional institutions limped along with scraps.

The students who attended those institutions–disproportionately poor, minority, immigrant, and first-generation students–suffered as a result. Too many failed to graduate and learn. Those students deserve better. The first step to helping them is gathering the information necessary to prove how good the best of the new institutions are, and how much better the rest could be.

IT-Inspired Transparency

Fortunately, there has never been a better time for transparency. The IT revolution has exponentially increased the potential for compiling nuanced data about college teaching and student learning, as well as crucial information about what happens to students years after they leave school. Because higher education is a national market–and because the institutions that sit atop the current status hierarchy are adamantly opposed to disclosing any new information that might call their primacy into question–only the federal government can make this happen.

The Obama Administration has proposed huge new increases in Pell Grants and other higher education programs, amounting to more than $70 billion over the next decade. It should require institutions receiving these funds to provide more information to the public in exchange. It should invest in R&D to develop new methods of gauging student success. And it should be prepared to fight a scorched-earth political battle against the entrenched special interests that will, if history is any guide, surely rise in opposition.

Gathering more information is the easiest part, since a lot of it already exists. Researchers have known for some time how to create rich, useful measures of college teaching and learning. The best methods–sophisticated surveys and highly developed tests–used to be expensive and cumbersome to administer. Then the Internet slashed the cost of surveys and tests to pennies on the dollar.

First out of the gate was the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), housed at Indiana University. Launched in 2000 and based on decades of research into best teaching practices, NSSE gives a sample of students at each college a battery of over 70 questions about things like the number of books and papers they were assigned, hours spent preparing for class, and group projects engaged, along with measures of student-faculty interaction, collaboration with other students, and the overall campus environment. Over 1,200 colleges have participated in the last eight years, and 643 in 2009 alone.

The Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) came a few years later, after being developed by a subsidiary of the RAND Corporation. Instead of filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil, CLA test takers write lengthy essays, analyzing documents and critiquing arguments. Recognizing that students choose very different academic specialties in college, the CLA tests the higher-order thinking skills that all college graduates should possess: critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and communication. The exam is given to a sample of freshmen and seniors, to estimate how much students learn in college. Like NSSE, the CLA has proved very popular, with more than 400 institutions participating to date. The makers of the ACT and SAT are now promoting similar tests of their own.

Recent years have also seen huge leaps forward in the ability to track student outcomes after college, particularly in the labor market. Like all modern organizations, colleges have converted their student records to electronic form. That information can be linked to other large databases, like the earnings and employment records maintained by every state as part of the unemployment insurance system. States like Florida already use these data systems to compile employment outcomes for every public university in the state, including earnings and sector of employment.

The federal government should make major new investments in research development to create new survey and testing instruments like NSSE and the CLA. There’s already a vehicle for this, called the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). Sadly, Congress has made a habit of spending every dollar of new FIPSE money on pork projects like the “John P. Murtha Institute of Homeland Security” at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, named for the veteran lawmaker who has elevated the practice of sending taxpayer money to hometown cronies and contributors to a fine art. FIPSE money should instead be used to develop a wide array of scientifically valid measures of how well colleges teach and how much students learn. Congress should also subsidize state data systems that link to employment results.

Once the data systems and new instruments have been developed and fine-tuned, Congress should insist that all colleges and universities accepting federal funds regularly report teaching, learning, and long-term student employment results. It wouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all process–colleges serve a diverse array of students and have a wide variety of scholarly and social missions. Each would have discretion to pick measures that fit who they are and what they do. But the measures would have to be credible, comparable, and publicly available.

There is plenty of precedent for this federal role. The Securities and Exchange Commission requires publicly traded companies to disclose detailed financial performance information every quarter, because such transparency is vital for the functioning of capital markets. Poorly performing companies undoubtedly wish they could avoid such disclosure, and bad actors occasionally cheat, but everyone understands the collective need for reliable public data. The feds don’t tell companies how to make money, just as they shouldn’t tell colleges how to teach calculus. They just require firms to report their results.

Keepers of the Secret

There’s only one thing standing in the way: One of the most powerful special interests lobbies that nobody’s ever heard of. The most reactionary education lobby in Washington, D.C., isn’t located at the 16th Street headquarters of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. It’s less than a mile away, at 1 Dupont Circle. That’s where the American Council on Education (ACE), the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), and a host of other alphabet-soup organizations conspire to maintain higher education secrecy at all costs. Long-established colleges that enjoy the benefits of the existing, information-starved reputation market dominate 1 Dupont.

Three recent examples illustrate the lengths to which they’ll go. To get colleges to participate in their surveys and tests, NSSE and the CLA had to strike a bargain. Colleges would control the results–the data would remain secret unless colleges chose otherwise. Then, in 2006, Mark Schneider, the commissioner of the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, proposed adding some new questions to the annual survey all colleges are required to fill out in exchange for federal funds. Colleges would be asked if they participated in surveys and tests like NSSE and the CLA. If the college answered “yes,” and had already chosen to make the data public, it would be asked to provide a link to the appropriate Web address. It would not be required to participate in any test or survey not of its choosing, or disclose any new information. It would just have to tell people where to find the information it had already, voluntarily, disclosed. One Dupont Circle rose up in anger and the proposal was summarily squashed. For his temerity, Schneider was nearly fired.

That same year, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings convened a high-profile “Commission on the Future of Higher Education.” In the course of its deliberations, the bipartisan commission bemoaned

a lack of clear, reliable information about the cost and quality of postsecondary institutions, along with a remarkable absence of accountability mechanisms to ensure that colleges succeed in educating students. The result is that students, parents, and policymakers are often left scratching their heads over the answers to basic questions, [including] which institutions do a better job than others not only of graduating students but of teaching them what they need to learn.

The commission went on to recommend upgrading an archaic federal data collection system to take advantage of newly developed IT systems, including electronic student records, under the aegis of existing federal privacy laws that prohibit the release of any personal student information. When the topic was broached in mid-summer, the president of NAICU issued a press release denouncing it as “Orwellian” and “an assault on Americans’ privacy and security in the shadow of the Fourth of July.” When the Commission persisted, 1 Dupont Circle ran to Congress, which obligingly passed a law making the new information system illegal.

Spellings took one more bite at the apple, this time focusing on accreditation. The accreditors, who depend on the institutions they regulate for funding, had historically declined to ask colleges for any evidence of how much students learn. Spellings proposed changing federal regulations to call on accreditors to require colleges to report some such information to the public; what information would be up to the college. Accreditors just had to require something. One Dupont Circle went back to Congress and made that illegal, too.

Lawmakers in Congress have spent years loudly complaining about rising college costs. Yet in the course of a few years, they shut down two of the biggest potential sources of the information that is badly needed to make higher education markets begin functioning in a cost-containing way.

Fulfilling Pell’s Promise

This is one area where President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, need to grab the reform baton from their predecessors. Because efforts to provide more information about colleges have been blocked at every turn, needed improvements in the higher education market haven’t occurred. Predictably, prices have continued to rise unabated. More students are borrowing more money to attend college than ever before, increasingly in the risky, unregulated private market. Loan default rates have risen sharply in just the last two years.

Issue #15, Winter 2010
Post a Comment

Rafael Castello, University of Valencia (Spain):

Really a very good analysis. Thank you.

One more argument: the American university system is one of reference for all the World, and now the European Union are copying some of the worst features: while we've quality system controls, they are overscoring the top universities, also; so the bottom ones are always underscored.

Dec 8, 2009, 2:40 AM

The writer's criticisms are not without foundation. There are many problems with higher education in the USA and we should work hard to improve our system.

The writer overlooks the fact that many people who go to college are not really college material and will not perform well academically regardless of where they go. Many students are more cut out to study as a tradesperson or enter an apprenticeship. The populist drives for 'universal college education' are wrong-headed. One needs only review the history of City College in NYC or the university system in France to see how well these programs work.

The system of higher education in the USA is without question, for all of its faults the best in the world. No country is as egalitarian in its admission standards. No country offers the avenues for self-improvement that the US educational system does.

Dec 9, 2009, 7:32 AM

@ Sacrifice

You might want to read an article written by William Deresiewicz;

Dec 28, 2009, 1:41 AM

Unfortunately, knowledge isn't something you can buy by/with/from? money. You have to do something to get it. But if your brain is occupied with sorrows about 1000s of Dollars of debts, you won't be able to focus your thinking on your homework. To do some brain work you must be free of other, maybe existential, problems.

Let me mention Darwin and Einstein. Both were free of financial problems when they made their discoveries. They had a safe job, or, in case of Darwin, a rich daddy. They had the necessary intellectual freedom to do research.

Knowledge is some sort of culture, and culture only can flourish if you haven't to struggle with other things.

Jan 17, 2010, 8:00 AM

Education has become a business of money not what can or should be learned.

May 15, 2012, 11:31 PM

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