That Old College Lie
Are our colleges teaching students well? No. But here’s how to make them.
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.
In addition to the toll on individual students, the higher education price explosion is also a serious barrier to national prosperity. In his February 2009 address to Congress, Obama called for the nation to regain its historic status of having the most college-educated workforce in the world by 2020. It will be exceedingly difficult to achieve this if college costs keep rising and colleges remain indifferent to how well they help students learn, graduate, and succeed in the workplace.
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