President Obama spoke Thursday at SUNY Binghamton to introduce his ideas about higher education in America. Friday he elaborated on those remarks at Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania. Binghamton is a research one university with just over 15,000 students. Lackawanna is a two-year (community) college with 1500 students and a focus on vocational training. From the itinerary, it seems clear that the president doesn’t have a “one size fits all” view of higher education. There’s a reason that he’s focusing on very different higher ed sectors. His remarks on Friday included passing references to the for-profit sector and to law schools.
I followed some of the initial reporting on Friday about the Binghamton speech. The president suggested clearer measures on college completion, tuition escalation, and lifetime earnings. The hope is that families being aware of “value for the dollar” will pick those institutions that hold costs down while achieving high outcomes, creating a competitive environment where the incentives shift from “what the market will bear” to “demonstrating quality“. He also gave a shout-out to innovations in technology (flipped classrooms, MOOCs) and competency-based education or credit for life learning. I didn’t get too excited about the president’s comments because it’s very early in the idea phase much less the implementation phase. It’s only today that I’m reading responses to Friday’s speech.
That didn’t stop organizations from issuing their immediate disclaimers calling out the normal suspects. For example, the AAUP came out with this statement on Saturday. They raise the normal concerns about shifting state revenue, No Child Left Behind, and the financial impact of federal compliance. Actually, much of their critique was a response to articles in the Wall Street Journal from December. They critique highly paid administrators and raise questions about how a focus on graduation rates will disproportionately impact students who are lower class or people of color.
Two weeks ago, Council of Independent Colleges president Richard Ekman wrote an open letter to President Obama about public pronouncements on college costs. Ekman rightly observes that most of the attention in the media and in Washington has gone to elite private schools and the escalating public institution tuition increases (on a percentage basis) due to decreased state funding. He points out that the private college sector is playing a vital role in both access and affordability.
While the top 100 colleges enroll 17 percent of their students from low-income backgrounds, smaller, private, nondoctoral colleges and universities, despite smaller endowments and less selective admissions, enroll approximately one-third of their students from low-income backgrounds.
Ekman goes on to observe that many of these private schools have experimented with flipped classrooms, online education, and non-traditional delivery for decades. However, face to face interaction is still mission central. (I’m always surprised to read course evaluations from online courses in my department where the students says “I wish we had more personal contact with the professor“.)
If I put all this together, we have many sectors of higher education under consideration. Large public research universities, community colleges, for-profit, elite private, small residential private, and within that sector, the Christian college or university. There is no way a single policy initiative can cover that breadth. That’s why accrediting institutions begin with institutional mission and then ask the school to evaluate its success against its unique mission.
This morning I read a wonderful post by Matt Reed
in Inside Higher Education. Matt, a community college administrator in Massachusetts, usually has excellent insights on major trends in higher ed (and child-rearing). Today he focused on a geeky report from the Brookings Institution. The report, by Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos, made great use of regression statistics. They used inputs (SAT, ACT, and student body characteristics) for major universities to predict an expected six year graduation rate for 15 major universities. Then they compared the actual six year rate to the predicted. As the following chart shows when you control for inputs, the relationship between institutional ranking and graduate rates seems to go away.
They go on to argue that one could control for inputs more carefully and see if schools outperform their estimates. They contrast the University of Michigan (which slightly underperforms when inputs are controlled) with MSU (which overperforms). Not trying to start any in-state fights here in Michigan — it’s just what the data suggests.
Reed suggests “Deploying a squadron of sociologists to improve public higher education in America strikes me as public money well spent.” Naturally, I think this is a FABULOUS idea!
But he does suggest an approach to understanding quality outcomes within a given sector that could work. In addition to considering input data (Ekman observed that private schools disproportionately draw from lower income, first generation populations), we also need to consider the kinds of jobs that our graduates pursue. One would also need to do regressions on differential percentages of graduates heading into fields like ministry, social work, education, engineering, computer science, and finance. When career aspiration is controlled in the same way as input data, you’d have a better measure of institutional effectiveness that wouldn’t favor only some privileged sectors.
One more thing. You could even factor in contact measures like average class size or student faculty ratio as a means of controlling for the educational philosophy that drives institutional choice (for both the college and for students deciding to attend there). We’d then be able to compare Spring Arbor to the University of Michigan by statistically controlling for the various correlates of success. Multiple Regression is a Wonderful Thing!
I think the Sociology Squadron needs a good name. Any suggestions?