Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Colleges: one size fits some

Posted by metaphorical on 31 March 2007

Back in July, the president of Trinity University wrote an article, “For Graduation Rates, Time to Carve a New Yardstick” that argued that the using graduation rates to assess a college might work for some, but doesn’t for all.

In debates about accountability in higher education, few data points are as frequently misused as graduation rates. Graduation rates measure attendance time, not outcomes, predicated upon a narrow cohort of “traditional” students (fewer than 25 percent of today’s undergraduates) who start as full-time, first-time freshmen and graduate within six years at the same institution. Aside from traditional transfer students who are unfairly characterized as “dropouts”(even if they complete degrees on the same timetable elsewhere), this statistical blind spot is also biased against older, part-time students and many female and minority students, who are more likely to have the personal and financial challenges that accompany extended time to graduation. Millions of such students do complete their degrees, albeit on a “non-traditional” timetable and following a more circuitous collegiate pathway.

And as a one-size-fits-all criterion of quality, it’s unfair and counterproductive.

Unfortunately, graduation rates have become surrogates for institutional quality, factoring significantly in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. While graduation rates are agnostic about learning, they reveal much about the homogeneity of a given group of students. As Robert Zemsky points out in Remaking The American University: Market-Smart and Mission-Centered, economically wealthier families with higher parental educational rates will seek out institutions with high graduation rates, assuming that those rates mean academic quality. The continuing critical mass of high-achieving, high-income students keeps the graduation rate high.

Trinity is a women’s college in Washington D.C., a city with a majority minority population, so to speak. It’s a largely poor and black city, that is, with the D.C. area looking like an extreme version of white-flight: the white and well-to-do live in suburban counties of Maryland and Virginia like Loudoun, Fairfax, Howard, three of the richest counties in America.

Most of Trinity’s undergraduates are “nontraditional” — even those who are between 18 and 22 years old. Largely self-supporting, they work substantial hours, often caring for children and elder parents. Sixty-five percent are Black, 15 percent are Latina. About 95 percent receive significant amounts of financial aid. For those who returned to school in their 30s and 40s, the choice to resume their studies arose from an overwhelming desire to succeed intellectually and professionally. These women are not “dropouts.”

If these students do not graduate in four, five or six years, it’s not because they are deficient, or because Trinity has failed them. Rather, life happens — spouses get ill or leave, babies come along, parents need help, jobs change. I think of Gwen, who raised seven children during the 13 years she took to earn a Trinity baccalaureate. This past spring, she proudly walked across the stage with her master’s degree. Gwen is a great success story, but like Verna and millions of others, she is invisible to the policy makers who want students to go through college the way they did.

Why does this matter? Because among the many ways in which the Bush administration has been gutting this country’s institutions like a fish is an obscure attempt to undermine the college accreditation process.

Inside Higher Ed does a good job of trying to make clear what the administration is doing, though the accreditation process is a thoroughly convoluted as well as obscure one. There’s also a bit of an inside-baseball aspect to the way the story is told that speaking for myself, limited my understanding of it.

The gist of the story is clear though. Margaret Spellings, the U.S. Secretary of Education, convened a Commission on the Future of Higher Education. In September 2005 it reported out its findings. There seems to be a consensus in academia that there were some good things in the report, and quite a few bad things. Critics have charged that the report calls for a much greater federalization of the U.S. university system than has ever existed.

One of the key mechanisms maintaining the loosely-organized national system we have today is the accreditation process, whereby accredited colleges and universities are understood to all live up to some minimum level of quality and to, within limits, allow transfers of students and course credit from one accredited institution to another.

The Department of Education this week conducted a three-day meeting to negotiate “possible new regulations on higher education accreditation.”

What unfolded during the second of three meetings of the Education Department’s rule making committee does matter, or at least could matter, to professors, college administrators and anyone with more than a passing interest in higher education.

It matters, at the very least, for what it reveals about the goals of this Education Department, about why accreditation has become the primary battlefield in the aftermath of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, and about the argument over what “quality” means in higher education.

The federal rule making process on accreditation is a central part of the Education Department’s strategy for carrying out the recommendations of the Spellings Commission, especially its core conclusion that colleges and universities need to do a much better job measuring and proving that they are successfully educating their students.

The Spellings Commission posited the argument that as American higher education’s system of self-regulation, accreditation was in large part responsible for academe’s overemphasis on reputation and underemphasis on measurable performance and “outcomes” — especially in terms of student achievement.

Colleges, they say, should be collecting and publicly reporting much more quantifiable information about the performance and success of their students — and doing so in ways that make it possible to compare their outcomes to similar institutions, which accreditors should do using “bright line” standards for minimally acceptable performance. And this information should be accessible and readily comparable

If that sounds more than a little like a higher-ed version of No Child Left Behind to you, it does to me. In the comment thread that ensued from Thursday’s post on colleges, high schools, and literacy, Kevin Keith wrote,

NCLB was a deliberate attempt to destroy public education, by defining “success” in an unreachable way and then using their inability to meet that standard as an excuse for privatizing the public schools and funding religious schools with public-school money.

Similarly, the assault on the accreditation process looks like an attempt to turn back the clock to a day when there was only model for a college and its students. Back then, the kids who went to college were from places like Loudoun, Fairfax, Howard counties, and decidedly not from the inner-city ghettos of Newark, Watts, or Washington D.C. As Trinity’s president says, “Back in those days, higher education in the United States was far less accessible, far more aristocratic and far less conscious of its responsibility as a gateway to economic opportunity.”

To quote Kevin again,

We need to do something about the schools. But separately from that, we need to end NCLB and depose the anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-education, pro-religion party and save our public education system from their coordinated assault.

We similarly need to make sure that if the Spellings commission is used to improve higher education, and it could certainly stand improvement, it’s not also used to eviscerate many of our colleges and universities, especially the ones that are doing the heaviest lifting when it comes to preparing students for what will surely be the most education-dependent century the world has ever seen.

2 Responses to “Colleges: one size fits some”

  1. Blue Athena said

    Using graduation rates for this kind of measure is yet another driving force behind low standards and grade inflation. If anything, I consider high graduation rate (relative to similar student bodies) a negative indicator for quality. I’ve always thought it was just another of those things U.S. News & World Report pulled out of their asses.

  2. I taught for a semester at Trinity College in DC. All the remarks quoted above ring true.

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