Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Keeping Consumers in the Dark

By Richard Vedder

Many times I have echoed the Spellings Commission's plea for more consumer information on student outcomes --what do students learn while in college? What do they do with their lives after graduation? Providing this information would have a positive effect on devising better rankings of colleges, improving the assessment of university efficiency and productivity, and making more informed and intelligent consumers. It would enhance competition and productivity, I believe.

Yet there are other types of information that are also not routinely provided in an objective standardized fashion by the U.S. Department of Education. Provision of this information would serve the public well in terms of providing more informed consumers, and would give us a better idea as to what employees in universities actually do. I list seven examples of desirable data below --there are others.

1) Teaching loads --while we can tell with precision how many teachers there are by skin color or gender status, we have no idea of how many hours weekly or yearly the typical faculty member is in the classroom. Why? The number in most cases is embarrassingly low, and colleges don't want to report it.

2) Distribution of class sizes -- At research universities, many senior professors teach seminars with 10 graduate students, while junior faculty, adjunct instructors and graduate students teach the undergraduate masses --sometimes in lecture halls with 300-400 or more students. While some private magazines give some self reported data, there is no attempt to provide good class size information centrally in an objective standardized fashion, despite the fact many parents want to know the class sizes their kids will face.

3) There is no direct data on the ratio of spending on undergraduate teaching as a percent of total university expenditures -- a measure of the relative importance of this mission to institutions. More generally, we do not get a good, easy-to-understand feel for what percent of university funds (aside from commercial operations) go for undergraduate instruction, graduate instruction, research, administration, student services, intercollegiate athletics, etc. Yet that information tells a person a good deal about the nature of an institution and its priorities.

4) What percent of kids live on campus in university housing? Off campus in private housing? At home with other family members? This helps discern whether the college is truly a residential college, a commuter school, etc.

5) What percent of classes are taught by graduate teaching assistants, or adjunct faculty? What percent are taught by persons with less than two years of teaching experience? What percent of student credit hours are taught by these classes of faculty? Are my children getting cheap, usually inexperienced part time faculty or more seasoned veterans in the classroom?

6) What are the grade distributions? Is there any attempt to impose rigorous performance standards?

7) Are there core courses as part of a general education requirement that all students must take? What are they? Are you required to learn about western civilization, the English language, our historical evolution, the nature of our civic institutions, or any science or math?

Why doesn't the Department of Education require provision of this type of information by colleges as a condition for the provision of loan funds or federal grants to applicants to a particular college or university? Why do they let the Educrats get away with hiding needed information from potential consumers and from policymakers?

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