Thursday, January 31, 2008

Transparency and the Higher Ed Establishment

By Richard Vedder

I followed Sen. Lamar Alexander in speaking to the Council of Higher Education and Accreditation (CHEA) yesterday. Doug Lederman got it about right when he said this morning that I was warning the Higher Ed Establishment that they need to open up their financial books, increase their measure of learning, and provide the public with a ton more information --or face dire consequences --bad Congressionally mandated regulations.

But transparency is good for broader reasons. Informed consumers are more satisfied ones. Informed donors make better choices on providing universities with resources. Competition is greater if people have a better idea about what colleges do, how they do it, and what it costs to do it.

CHEA is working with Carol Schneider (who I explicitly praised yesterday) of the ACU group (Association of Colleges and Universities) in promoting transparency and the development of performance outcomes. Like Charles Miller, I think this is laudable, principled, and a big step in the right direction. But I share Charles's big concern: SOME uniformity needs to exist in the way colleges report learning outcomes, so parents are not comparing apples to oranges. There is a dilemma here --colleges want autonomy to choose the way they measure student outcomes, citing unique educational missions and the sacred principle of institutional autonomy. Parents and policymakers want comprehensible data that allows the comparison of school A with school B. The inevitable compromise is to let schools choose between a menu of alternative ways to report data --giving them some choice and autonomy --but limiting those choices so that comparing A and B becomes relatively non-cumbersome. It is a tricky compromise, but it is doable, and the schools should stop complaining and start working with people like Carol and Judith Eaton who know the alternative --doing nothing --will lead to all sorts of bureaucratic rules and regulations imposed by a Congress that doesn't have the foggiest idea how universities do or should work.

By the way, I have a minor quibble with Doug Lederman (who is a good reporter and, who indeed, I am buying dinner for tonight): my stand-up routine, as he called it (a fair shot) he termed off-color in places. It may have been offensive, it may have been provocative, it may have been muddled and irrelevant, but it was NOT off-color.

Interested in college endowments and the spending that is financed by them, and are in DC tomorrow? Come by the American Enterprise Institute at 9:30 a.m. for an AEI conference on the topic that I (and my CCAP colleagues) organized. 1150 17th St. N.W., 12th floor.

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