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Holding colleges accountable

Wow. Parts of this make my blood boil because it is such an obvious attempt to slam higher education.  Can it really be Time Magazine!

But the column gives me pause.  Is there a veil of secrecy around higher education?  Are colleges given too much  respect?  Are we really doing our job?

I know how I’d answer those questions, but increasing, people are telling me I may be in the minority.  As we move ahead with our strategic communications planning initiative — sans veil of secrecy — we need to recognize all sides.  Hold your breath, or should I say nose, and read on.

Passion Rules!

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Holding Colleges Accountable:  Is Success Measurable?

With almost 40% of the nation’s college-age students in some form of post-secondary education — and tuition costs as high as they’ve ever been — we don’t really have a handle on what students learn at university. Or whether they’re learning anything at all. Kevin Carey, the policy director at Washington think tank Education Sector, believes that many colleges do a bad job of (a) teaching students and (b) getting them to graduate. An essay he wrote for the December issue of Democracy is making waves in the higher-ed world because it describes how lots of colleges are keeping confidential a lot of student-assessment data. He spoke with TIME education correspondent Gilbert Cruz about why parents — and public officials — should demand more accountability from colleges.

You refer in your essay to a “veil of secrecy that has shrouded higher education” for a very long time. What information don’t colleges want people to know?

There’s the information that exists that they don’t want you to know about, and then there’s the information that doesn’t exist that they don’t want to exist. In the latter category, no one knows how much students learn at a given college or university. No one knows. The entire process for assessing learning is completely idiosyncratic and course-based. Now, in some cases, there’s good reason for that. There may be courses where literally there is one professor somewhere who is the only person who teaches a certain subject a certain way. At the same time, there is also a great deal of commonality. If you look at the courses students tend to take — almost everyone who goes to college takes a psychology class and takes an English class and takes a math class and takes basic science classes. Virtually no college assesses how much students learn in any subject and publishes data in a way that would allow you to compare it to other colleges. That information simply does not exist.

Then there is other kinds of data that I mention in the article –things like the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Collegiate Learning Assessment. NSSE (pronounced ‘Nessie’) is a measure of teaching quality and student learning. The Collegiate Learning Assessment is a test of critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and communication skills that is content non-specific. You can give it to an engineering major, and you can give it to an English major and learn the same thing. Hundreds of colleges and universities administer these surveys and tests to their students, but most of them don’t publish the data. They keep it to themselves.

Why is that?

There’s no upside for them. There have been a few cases where open-access colleges that don’t have much to lose will try to get their data out there. A couple of years ago, I wrote a column about the University of Nebraska at Omaha — there’s the University of Nebraska, which is the one with the football team, and Omaha is the commuter campus. The Omaha campus administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment, and when they issued a press release saying, “We did really, really well,” they were yelled at and condemned by a lot of people in higher ed for doing something that was inappropriate. There’s this conviction that it’s wrong to use any kind of standardized instrument to make any claims about learning.

Because all colleges believe they are each beautiful and unique snowflakes?

The thing about snowflakes is that they’re all small, they’re all white, and they’re all cold. They’re not actually all that different from one another. Sure, every college is different in some way from its peers, but I would defy anyone to explain to me the difference between Indiana University Southeast and Indiana University Northwest. They’re like the same thing, basically. They all teach the same classes by and large –business, engineering, education. These are the classes that college students actually take. Very few people are studying 5th-century Chinese calligraphy. So colleges are not as different from one another as they would like people to believe. The argument is basically, “If I’m unique, I’m incomparable. And if I’m incomparable, I’m not accountable because no one can judge me.” Colleges have a vested interest in being in a position where no one can judge them, because then they can do whatever they want.

Are colleges given too much respect?

Universities definitely get too much of a free pass. We have not gotten in the habit of asking hard questions about whether or not universities are doing a good job of teaching their students. Some of them are. There are fantastic universities, fantastic departments, fantastic programs, but there are also terrible universities, terrible departments, terrible programs. And the great fiction is that there are none of the latter. Listen to the way that we talk to students about the admissions process. Even as they compete for the best students, schools say, “It’s all about fit. It’s not about finding the best university, it’s about finding the university that’s right for you.” And so there’s this polite fiction that every university is right for some student, and every student is right for some university. Well, that’s just not true.



1 Janie Hice Coleman { 02.24.10 at 7:28 am }

Joe this article is great.
As jenna prepares for college no one has talked about “education” what will she learn and how do they know they are teaching what she needs to know. I asked those questions and keep hearing if its “perfect fit” she will get what she needs. What perfect fit?? Does going to one school over the other make a difference if you have what it takes?

2 Joe Hice { 02.24.10 at 7:35 am }

Hi from Raleigh:-) Excited to see that my little sister is reading the blog. Her oldest daughter is going through the college search as we speak. She is a great student with talent, thus she has lots of choices. Is there such thing as the perfect fit. I suspect not. There are good fits and bad fits, but in the end the kids determine the direction their college experience will take. You can find a home among 32,000 students for example. Lots of choice, lots to do, a lot of people to lean on. Or, you can get lost; sucked down into the fray, just a number among thousands.

At a small school you have to stand out, whether you want to or not. Everybody knows you name. You get more attention, you feel special. But your classes may be limited, activities may be limited, and if you don’t like the kids in your class, it can be harder to find a place that fits.

Sure glad our girls have made it through. One decided on a big school. One small. Both are very successful, hard working young women today. Makes a dad proud, but they did it on their own. They found their way –through the good and the bad — they created the college experience that best fit.

3 Jenny Weston { 03.01.10 at 2:48 pm }

This article does not take into account the fact that there are oversight mechanisms in place for credible universities and colleges. In engineering we have ABET accreditation. Colleges with this accreditation are studied every 5 years and all programs are given a thorough evaluation. Our COE is currently in this process. I can promise you that any engineering program with ABET accreditation is worth the money invested to attend. Of course, not all students graduate. This is a reality that is not entirely based on the quality of the school, its academic programs or its professors. Some folks just aren’t going to finish.

I always hate it when I read articles like this written by people who are more interested in creating buzz than giving a true and thoroughly researched picture. Hopefully the editor will get some letters from high ed folks who can help shed light on the realities. Of course if you’re talking about University of Phoenix, well…

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