Forbes: A Discussion On Higher Education Accountability

John F. Ebersole, president of Excelsior College

Commentary appears in Forbes

A recent New York Times op-ed, “How to hold colleges accountable,” lists a number of problems with contemporary higher education and offers the solution of greater accountability. While I commend the authors, Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler of the Washington think tank Third Way for their multi-dimensional assessment, their conclusion warrants further discussion, along with acknowledgement of progress already being made.

These authors present their concerns under three umbrella headings – quality of instruction, outcome transparency, and financial aid. In looking at each, there is much to applaud. For instance they hit the mark in regard to the uneven quality of teaching and its impact on retention. As MIT president Rafael Reif noted in his 2013 remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, “We have spectacular researchers [at MIT] who are lousy teachers.

Many can relate to Reif’s assessment as they think of the need to endure, the relentless monotone of a brilliant professor reading from notes or dense slides. Yet, how can we be critical when the average classroom instructor has had no formal training or preparation. The fact that 80% of faculty are not using innovative teaching methods (per the cited Gates study) is neither surprising, nor defensible.

An exception is to be found in the world of online learning. Here, potential instructors typically complete a four to six week training as a condition of appointment. In addition to teaching in a medium already seen as innovative, online instructors benefit from the support of credentialed instructional designers who help ensure that lessons are engaging and interactive. As a result, the course completion rate at Excelsior, an adult serving nonprofit, created by the Regents of the State of New York (as well as other online providers), is over 90%.

Cowan and Kessler’s points about doing a better job of preparing faculty to teach, evaluating performance and holding them accountable for learning outcomes are fully supported. This, again, is already the case online, where both students and program managers evaluate performance (benefitted by a written transcript of all interactions). Additionally, objective assessments of student learning can be conducted without expecting the instructor to build a valid instrument. Some have long thought that asking instructors to prepare their own exams is to move them from their area of expertise and create a conflict of interest.

In Great Britain, the role of “lecturer” is separate from that of “examiner.” Both work from the same syllabus, but the person delivering the instruction does not measure whether learning has actually taken place.

The second of the three op-ed topics of concern relates to transparency of outcomes – graduation rates, time to completion, costs, alumni income, etc. The good news here is that much work has already been done by a variety of public (APLU & AASCU), private (NAICU), and community college (AACC) associations, as well as by individual institutions. Going further will likely require greater data collection and/or adoption of a system along the lines of President Obama’s “college rating” initiative. In both cases the associated costs must be evaluated against the expected benefits.

In the third and final area of concern – student aid – there is clearly reason for worry, and to be critical. The problem here is the degree to which college graduates have become burdened with loan debt. A weak economy and rising tuition sent a 1-2 punch to the student solar plexus over the past few years. However, the degree to which greater college accountability could change this is not clear. Closer evaluation of the rise in demand, and amounts, of these loans is instructive. According to my own financial aid counselors, many loans have been made to cover “living expenses” as well as to pay tuition, during a time of peak unemployment. At 3.9% interest, a federally backed loan has been an attractive way for some to “get by.”

Rising tuition is a concern, and has contributed to the need for student aid. But as with other aspects of the higher education landscape, it isn’t a simple matter to change. For instance, since 2008 every state has cut its support for public higher education (which serves 70% of those enrolled), some by double digits. As tax revenues fell, state subsidies followed. In addition, the cost of regulatory compliance increased dramatically.

Over the last six years, hundreds of new regulations have been imposed on colleges and universities. Each has required evaluation (as to applicability), compliance and reporting. The cost of just one of these (State Authorization) costs my institution more than $300,000, annually.

To understand the student debt issue more fully, we need to go below the headlines. For instance, the much reported $29,000 in average student debt falls by 50% (to $15,100) when those who took NO student loans are included in the calculation. This is up but 9% over a decade.

The default rate needs a closer look, as well. Contrary to public perception, progress is being made. While a 13.7% average is nothing to be proud of, it is well below the 22.4% rate of 1990 and is a full 1% less than last year.

The final piece of good news is that total federal and nonfederal lending for education is at a five year low – $106 billion for academic year 2013-14, as opposed to the all time high of $122.1 billion in 2010-11, a 13% drop.

To sum up, most will agree that the quality of classroom instruction can be improved, and that all institutions need to do a better job assessing learning outcomes, as regional accreditors now require. As for the transparency issue, much of the information suggested by Cowan and Kessler is already available.

More may be desired but should be evaluated against cost of acquisition and true need. It remains unclear as to whether the existing resources are used, and who they benefit.

The financial aid picture remains troubling, but may not be as presented. Tuition increases are flattening, borrowing is down and default rates are falling (slowly). While not intended to minimize the burden of high loan debt, it does need to be kept in perspective. American Student Assistance, a Boston-based non-profit and student loan guarantor, offers the following rule of thumb: “the total amount of student debt should not exceed the borrowers anticipated annual salary for the first year out of school.”

The National Association of Colleges and Employers, reports that the class of 2014 had average starting salaries of $48,707, up 7.5% from 2013.

While Cowan and Kessler see the glass as half empty, I do not. They come to the conclusion that college students aren’t learning on the strength of a single, highly controversial study that does not reconcile with the fact that the unemployment rate for those with a degree now stands at 2.8%. Employers appear to see something that Cowan and Kessler do not.

Colleges are already accountable – to their faculty, students, trustees, state higher education authorities, accreditors, and multiple agencies of the federal government. What remains unclear, is the specific problem that is to be solved by the “greater accountability” proposed. Many of the concerns explored here go beyond individual institutions and ignore the role of the federal government in their creation. American higher education faces much that needs to change. More regulation isn’t the solution.