Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Obama Administration is attempting to revolutionize American education

Today's Campus Magazine's October issue features my article on the Administration's assault on the for-profit sector of higher education. The article focuses on the Department of Education's emphasis on "gainful employment" and its announced intent to link this key statutory concept to graduates' ability to repay their student loans.

Unfortunately, the October 15th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Obama has already "faced significant pushback on his plan to tie federal aid to graduates' debt levels and employment. While the administration is unlikely to abandon the proposal, it is under intense pressure from for-profit colleges to soften the so-called gainful-employment rule, and it recently postponed putting out the regulation until after the mid-term elections."

I for one am not too surprised. The for-profits have their own trade association, plus plenty of other lobbyists, on the ground in Washington. Without the ability to take in federal loan money as tuition from their students, many of these entities would probably stop doing business. Read "for subsidy" instead of "for profit."

In my view, not only should the for-profits (aka for-subsidies) colleges be held to a "gainful employment" standard... as I have said before (see below), the accrediting agencies, the not-for-profits, and the public universities should also de-emphasize so-called "learning outcomes" assessment in favor of a gainful-employment assessment approach.

Are accrediting organizations in tune with their times?

Jim Castagnera

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education is making the rounds with a series of regional meetings. I recently attended one conducted at the College of New Jersey (formerly known as Trenton State). The unabashed motive of this road show is to stave off efforts by higher education’s critics to shift accreditation standards into the clutches of a Washington bureaucracy.

Photo of Jim Castagnera
Jim Castagnera
The 100-plus attendees from numerous regional institutions were told that standards will be grounded in “student learning outcomes” assessment. The accreditors said that they seek to demonstrate the “value added” aspects of a college education, but the also contended that measuring student achievement in terms of subsequent employment and earnings should be resisted as “too hard to prove.”
Does recently released data support the Middle States contention? On February 1st UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute released the results of its 35th annual college student survey. (Greentree Gazette editor Tom Robinson discussed this survey in an e-Series recently.)

Fifty-two percent of the respondents listed “graduates get good jobs” as a top reason for choosing the college they are attending. This data point suggests two things. First, the information about where alumni are working must not be “too hard to prove.” Second, our industry’s undergraduate consumers care very much about this piece of intelligence.

Proponents of measuring student learning outcomes in lieu of tracking subsequent student achievement may counter that 63 percent of the freshmen surveyed cited “a very good academic reputation” as a leading motive for choosing their respective schools.

Meanwhile, the substitution of a school's financial viability as a proxy for academic quality is a questionable practice. Senior Fellow Jon Fuller of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities points out that “both federal government and accreditation standards use financial stability as a place-holder for quality education, perhaps because the latter is difficult to measure.” Directly addressing the tiny, religiously affiliated colleges that dot the Deep South, Fuller added, “Many of these schools have been around 100 or 150 years. I doubt that they were ever any less [financially] fragile than they are today. Yet they always have a hard time meeting such standards.”

So student learning outcomes are a clear improvement over at least one other measure - financial stability. But aren't they merely a halfway house between financial stability and subsequent student achievement?

Is there not considerable overlap among the 63 percent of freshman respondents who cited “good academic reputation” and the 52 percent who ticked off “good jobs?”

Is it not logical - and inevitable - that accrediting agencies will be measuring alumni employment and earnings data?

Herewith, some sources of further reading on accrediting and on the for-profit higher education sector:

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