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