Accountability in Higher Education

The original name of this blog was Access With Success. Since its founding 5 years ago, it has drawn attention to two key education issues: access to education for all qualified students and successful outcomes from education. On July 27, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke about the same two issues at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Mr. Duncan’s remarks identified three needed shifts in our attention to higher education: a focus on outcomes, needed innovation as well as student debt and the costs of higher education.

Too little attention has been paid to higher education’s outcomes. The issues of accountability get lost in the attention to the cost of college and the level of public debt, despite their very significance. Greater attention has to be paid to accountability. That is why I wrote, “Just graduating is not enough” in a recent blog. I wrote about the experience of our administrative team in bringing about accountability with transparent information on students’ performance at Colorado State University. Too few US colleges have adopted and maintained what we instituted there almost a decade ago.

However, there are changes that we can make in the coming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which was originated in 1965 and last reauthorized in 2008. Those changes can address the need for greater accountability. They include publishing data like those envisioned in the College Portrait on the Department of Education’s website. Parents and prospective students deserve information about college persistence; graduation rates; and postgraduate employment, education and career choice. This information makes good consumer sense.

The needed changes to the Higher Education Act also extend to accrediting bodies. Mr. Duncan observes in his remarks that regional accrediting bodies pay little attention to outcomes and accountability. He is mostly right. Years ago I served on a site review team of a major research university up for its periodic regional accreditation review. Another team member and I were very concerned with whether the university’s honors program was delivering a quality education. We had met the young people. They were enthusiastic about getting an education, and they appeared highly intelligent. They deserved more than what they said they were getting. Yet, the site review team’s report, led by one of the accrediting body staff, paid little attention to our concerns about outcomes. There are needed changes to higher education accreditation, including more streamlined processes, requirements for evaluation of a college’s outcomes, and encouragement for innovation in light of the financial challenges especially for small schools.

The Department of Education cannot take on the entire burden for accountability. Many don’t want it involved at all. I believe they are wrong about limiting too severely the Department’s involvement. There is a role for the US Department of Education. There is also a role for states and the institutions, themselves. States can take action now to demand outcome rather than input data from state schools. They can also take action to make that information publicly available in accessible websites. Private and proprietary institutions can do the same.

Mr. Duncan’s remarks address all of higher education, not just for-profit education. We have needed this widespread focus on all of higher education. I applaud what he has done. I hope his remarks receive widespread attention and debate.

Meeting the Challenges of Young Americans for the 21st Century

Just released this week by the Harvard Graduate School of Education is its Pathways to Prosperity.  The report focuses on the need to supplement our traditional colleges with meaningful career education if we expect to substantially increase the competiveness of the labor force.  Referencing the goal of the President for higher education participation and lamenting the forecasts for a drop in educational attainment in the U. S., the report stated, “Given these dismal attainment numbers, a narrowly defined ‘college for all’ goal—one that does not include a much stronger focus on career-oriented programs that lead to occupational credentials—seems doomed to fail.”

Access With Success has repeatedly pointed to the very critical role that career-oriented colleges play in our capacity to increase the quality of the labor force and global competitiveness of the U. S.  Many career colleges, like Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts that recently announced its closure in Pittsburgh, play a very critical role in increasing the employability and quality of life of the community.  The Department of Education’s imposition of unnecessary regulations has an especially significant and negative impact on at-risk students who are disproportionately African Americans and Hispanics.   For-profit colleges enroll very substantial numbers of at-risk students, the very students for which college success was lamented by the Harvard report.

If we expect to address the challenges of the Harvard report, we will need to increase substantially the diversity of the avenues to education beyond high school.  For-profit colleges and universities have the potential to play a very significant role in avoiding the “failure” that the Harvard report foresees.

Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review – Executive Order: Part 2

 

 

On Friday, I posted the first part of a two-part series on Obama’s recent executive order regarding regulation. This second part will introduce a new focus of my blog – energy. As president of Colorado State University, I was committed to improving the energy efficiency of our campus and have previously served on the advisory board of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. I hope you enjoy my thoughts on current issues in energy.

On the same day as President Obama issued the executive order – – Improving Regulation and Regulatory Overview he wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, explaining the rationale for his action and his responsibility to “strike the right balance” between the costs and benefits of regulation.  He used as a major example of regulation gone awry the EPA’s continued treatment of the artificial sweetener, saccharin, as a dangerous chemical despite the FDA’s long-term consideration of saccharin as safe.

President Obama’s focus on the role of environmental regulation struck me as particularly apt and of considerable importance to many of us who have led large higher education institutions.  Many university presidents, include myself, have sought to address the challenges associated with the environment, particularly, the role that energy production and utilization plays in producing greenhouse gases.  When I was president of Colorado State University, I took several such actions –  promoting a research focus in renewable energy, creating a School of Global Environmental Sustainability to support students’ education and job potential, and introducing a variety of initiatives to address the risings costs of the University’s energy consumption and the carbon footprint of the institution.

I took these actions for a variety of reasons, including the body of science associated with climate change, documented in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Climate Change 2007.  But I also took these actions for two other reasons.  Students deserve to have access to knowledge on energy and the environment based on sound science, not merely opinion.  Finally, universities face growing, projected costs of energy, and a president has responsibility to assure the campus’s future energy supply at reasonable costs.

Those of us presidents who have addressed the challenges associated with energy on a college campus understand the complexities of the challenge, including the responsibility that we have – like the President – to “strike the right balance.”  While research and the technology that comes from it are increasing the potential of sustainable energy to replace fossil fuels, we understand the limitations of new technologies at this time and the costs associated with them.  Our on-going dependency on fossil fuels requires a pragmatic acceptance of the lack of a near-term, adequate substitute for them.  Thus, we find ourselves, like President Obama, measuring costs against benefits.  With the growing, global appetite for energy, we must insist on pragmatism, balancing the benefits of replacement of fossil fuels with the costs of their renewable substitutes.  That is the reason why regulation must be imposed only with great care.

Essentially, energy is another issue where access and success are intertwined with one another.  Customers, including universities, need access to energy, and universities, especially, have a responsibility for the long-term success of our energy industry: education of its employees, the development of new technology, including the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, and managing the costs of energy.  Thus, President Obama’s determination to “strike the right balance” in regulation is welcome.  I join him in supporting regulation that does so, and from time to time, I will comment on energy from the perspective of an educator and manager who has responsibility for assuring access to a reasonably priced supply of energy.

Updated Carnegie Classifications Reveals the Transformation to Higher Education

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has released its Updated Carnegie Classifications, and the news confirms what many of us have suspected in the dramatically altering landscape of higher education.  Said Chun-Mei Zhao, who directs Carnegie’s Classifications, “This suggests that the higher education landscape is shifting further away from the traditional model of the liberal arts college.”

The Updated Classifications indicate far more than just the shift away from the traditional liberal arts college that still dominates the way many of us think of colleges and universities.  The private, for-profit sector represented 77% of the new institutions since the last time the Classifications were released in 2005.  Moreover the shift is particularly noticeable in the increase in the number of schools with a professional focus; those schools with a “Professional Focus” or a “Professional Focus plus arts & sciences” now award 60% of the bachelor’s degrees in professional fields.

While the transforming character of higher education is evident in these numbers, the change in enrollments in only five years is particularly telling.  Between 2005 and 2010, traditional public institutions’ enrollments grew by 13.9%, and traditional private institutions’ enrollments grew by 9.3%.  By contrast, the enrollments in private, for-profit colleges and universities more than doubled, growing by 110%.

The shifting industry was also revealed in what is occurring at the community college level.  Those schools classified as traditional associate’s colleges increased dramatically the extent to which they are awarding not just associates’ degrees but bachelors’ degrees as well.  In 2005, 109 traditional associates’ colleges awarded bachelor’s degrees; in 2010, the number was 162, a 49% increase.

Controversy Continues over GAO Report

Norton Norris released a second study today on the for-profit industry – this time the study focused on the much-debated GAO report on for-profit education and what Norton Norris deems its “disingenuous and erroneous conclusions.” The Norton Norris report concluded that there were flagrant errors and misrepresentations in the GAO’s report even after the GAO issued a heavily amended and revised version of the study in November 2010.

In a press release, Norton Norris detailed its issues with the most recent version of the report:

  • Throughout their report, the GAO shows it does not understand the difference between an academic year and a calendar year. As a result, five of their findings regarding program length and cost are completely wrong and do not even merit mention in the report.

 

  • In one case, the GAO reports that an undercover applicant was told that getting a job “was a piece of cake” and that graduates from this school are making $120,000 to $130,000 per year. There is no evidence of this conversation in the recording.

 

  • During another visit (mystery shop) the question of graduation rate was NEVER raised by the undercover agent but the report indicates a different scenario and states: “The college representative did not tell the graduation rate when asked directly.” This conversation simply does not exist on the recording.

 

  • In an attempt to paint a college as “over-promising” expected earnings at graduation, the original GAO report stated the undercover applicant could make up to $100 an hour. The revised GAO report adjusts this down to $30 an hour. But the complete recording reveals that later in the discussion the admissions representative is clear that earnings are based on experience, the undercover applicant is given a data sheet and the admissions rep states that minimum average rate per hour for massage therapists in their area is $22. The GAO never reports this last accurate piece of information.

 

  • An admission representative thoroughly explains student loans and the importance of financial responsibility. The admissions representative even suggests the undercover applicant borrow less than what they need. However, the original GAO report as well as a revised version from November 2010 ignores these statements. Instead, they focus solely on another statement offered during the conversation regarding the undercover applicant’s ability to take out the maximum in loans.

An Inside Higher Ed article published today also highlights Norton Norris’ report and offers a response from the GAO. This controversy over dueling reports raises many issues, but it leaves unclear the extent to which there are real problems with admissions programs of for-profit colleges.  As a result of rules by the Department of Education, earlier inquiries and press reports, many for-profit colleges reviewed their admissions programs and, where appropriate, made changes designed to reassure their integrity in dealing with prospective students. It is unfortunate that the news today may be interpreted otherwise.

Huffington Post: “Community Colleges Overcrowding”

Yesterday, the Huffington Post published my opinion piece on community college overcrowding and the merits of for-profit colleges as an alternative. The article notes:

Limiting students’ educational opportunities creates barriers to success that many cannot overcome. As students seek opportunities in higher education, we must be careful not to limit these options for any segment of society; instead, we should support a system that encourages all students to pursue higher education. A 21st century economy depends upon a person’s knowledge as a foundation for increased personal earnings and the economy’s enlarged capacity to grow.

A recent Washington Post article cited difficulties that community colleges are having nationwide. Due to budget shortfalls, many of these institutions can no longer accommodate the number of students interested in attending. They have been forced to turn applicants away. In Colorado, where I served as president of Colorado State University, the waiting lists for nursing programs at some community colleges can be as long as 3.5 years. Due to overcrowding and underfunding, nursing students in Colorado face the alternative of a career for which they have less passion or a wait of more than 3 years.

Click here to view the full story.

Increased Program Reviews at For-Profit Colleges

The Department of Education recently announced its intention to conduct an increased number of program reviews of student-aid operations in the coming year. These audit-like examinations are intended to ensure that students receive only the grants that they are entitled to and that institutions make the proper refunds. James Kvaal, Deputy Under Secretary of Education, announced that the department would be making these changes at last week’s Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities Summit – citing a focus on the nation’s deficit.

Addressing this issue, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported:

About 30 percent of all Pell Grant funds now go to students in the for-profit sector. Mr. Kvaal said colleges that educate such needy students with good programs are performing “a service to those students and a service to the country.” But he said then, and at several other times during his talk, that the department remained very concerned about for-profit colleges that rely on “deceptive and high-pressure sales tactics” to enroll students or leave them with unreasonable levels of student debt.

 

Mr. Kvaal is correct in praising the service that is provided by those schools that educate high proportions of working class students.  It is unfortunate that a few bad actors lead to increased and often unnecessary oversight and review for the many good actors among for-profit schools.  The result will be to divert the Department’s resources from improving access to higher education and success of students enrolled in our colleges and universities.

Increased access and students’ ultimate successful graduation with skills and knowledge should be the higher education focus of the department – for both the traditional sector of the higher education industry and the for-profit sector.  Mixed messages from the department are harming the industry and diverting us from critical improvements that are necessary in the traditional and for-profit sectors.  And this is occurring just when we especially need higher education’s contributions to an educated labor force and new technology to aid us in recovering from a too-lengthy recession.