Sunday, July 20, 2008

Three Good Moves Towards Transparency and Accountability

By Richard Vedder

My wife told me that I might be wasting my time serving on the Spellings Commission, because nothing would get done. I must say at many times I shared her doubts, and almost did not sign the final report. In retrospect, however, I think the Commission did some good, albeit not enough, to promote higher education change for the better. Secretary Spellings and the Commission both have been calling on colleges to tell us more about what they are doing, and what outcomes we are getting from students. Three examples of this process are:

1) The Collegiate Learning Assessment test is being given by a growing number of schools, and more are reporting results on it. I have been rebuffed in attempts to actually SEE the test, so my support of this effort is somewhat conditional, but I am told that it measures some important learning attributes, such as critical thinking skills, reasonably well. Giving the test to entering freshman and graduating seniors and publishing the results nationwide would give us a marvelous indicator of student academic progress, assuming the test is, in fact, all that it is cracked up to be.

2) The National Survey of Student Engagement, and its community college counterpart, is now given at hundreds of institutions. It tells us what students actually DO in college --how hard they work, how "engaged" they are. The aggregate numbers I have seen are somewhat sobering and depressing, suggesting college kids spend too much time playing and not enough time working (and I do believe "playing" is part of the collegiate experience). The main weakness is that many, many schools do NOT report publicly their Nessie scores. State governing boards should force the public schools under their tutelage to do so as part of a common source of information on schools under their jurisdiction --and I am one generally opposed to too much regulation of schools from governmental bureaucrats.

3) The Voluntary System of Accountability is an effort of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) that is a direct outgrowth of the Spellings Commission. It forms a common format and data base for all schools to report, and be available as part of a College Portrait. Some 264 schools have become part of the VSA, including some big and important ones. In the Big Ten Conference -arguably the biggest and best of our state universities among the athletic conferences --some very important schools have joined (e.g, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa) while others have not (e.g., Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State). I have looked at the format of the VSA and am generally impressed, although we still need a good "value added" indicator. Interestingly, the top schools in the US NEWS public university rankings --Cal Berkeley, Michigan, Virginia, UCLA --are NOT part of VSA --are they afraid of telling people what goes on? The schools involved enroll, I would estimate, probably 4 million students and involve at least one-third of the bachelor's degrees awarded annually. It is a very good start, but one that needs to be enhanced, both by numeric expansion and by increasing information provided.

There are other efforts, such as the UCAN project involving over 600 private schools initiated by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) which also deserve applause.

We also need more concerted efforts to have a uniform financial accounting system across universities, with far more transparency of information on financing--maybe even listing of checks written (as done by one Oregon school).

Nonetheless, some progress is being made, which is pretty good for a sector that is notoriously secretive about itself despite the fact that it is in the business of dispensing and creating knowledge.

1 comment:

Eveningsun said...

A couple points....

First, re the Collegiate Learning Assessment: Like Richard, I have no idea whether "the test is, in fact, all that it is cracked up to be." (Kind of odd that a test you've not been allowed to see constitutes a move toward transparency and accountability, but there it is.) The other major concern is that, even if the test itself is wonderful, results might be used inappropriately by various stakeholders and ideologues. For example, fewer than half of the students who enter my institution actually graduate from it. (This fact itself is wrongly but regularly cited as evidence that we're botching student retention.) The "entering freshman" and "graduating senior" cohorts are quite different. Presumably it would be possible to compare both apples to apples (the scores of graduating seniors to the scores of those same students when they took the test as entering freshmen) and apples to oranges (the scores of graduating seniors to the scores of all entering freshmen). At least two sets of results would be generated and appropriated as evidence for various arguments. Clarity is not necessarily and inevitable result; the result might just be the generation of a cloud of figures providing something for every position. Also, scores would be compared between institutions in ways both valid and invalid, both sensible and nonsensical. The high school tests used in my own state get abused in this way all the time. They're routinely garbled by newspaper reporters and routinely used to bamboozle the public. It's inevitable.

Second, re the National Survey of Student Engagement: I've heard the most amazing things about NSSE--amazing in the sense that it measures student attitudes and behaviors, yet is often thought of as a measure of how well colleges are doing. It's a bit like measuring motorists' drunk driving habits and then hearing people argue that such research will help Ford Motor Company improve its operating efficiency. It's truly bizarre.

Don't get me wrong. I think NSSE provides valuable information. Faculty and administrators need to know who our students are and how they behave. But I don't think NSSE offers very much, at least not directly, to the cause of college transparency and accountability.