Holding Colleges Accountable: Is Success Measurable?

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C. Devan / Corbis

With almost 40% of the nation's college-age students in some form of post-secondary education — and tuition costs as high as they've ever been — we don't really have a handle on what students learn at university. Or whether they're learning anything at all. Kevin Carey, policy director at the Washington think tank Education Sector, believes that many colleges do a bad job of 1) teaching students and 2) getting them to graduate. An essay he wrote for the December issue of Democracy is making waves in the higher-ed world because it describes how a lot of colleges are keeping student-assessment data confidential. He spoke with TIME education correspondent Gilbert Cruz about why parents — and public officials — should demand more accountability from colleges.

You refer in your essay to a "veil of secrecy that has shrouded higher education" for a long time. What information don't colleges want people to have?
There's the information that exists that they don't want you to know about, and then there's the information that doesn't exist that they don't want to exist. In the latter category, no one knows how much students learn at a given college or university. No one knows. The entire process for assessing learning is completely idiosyncratic and course based. Now in some cases there's good reason for that. There may be courses where literally there is one professor somewhere who is the only person who teaches a certain subject a certain way. At the same time, there is also a great deal of commonality. If you look at the courses students tend to take, almost everyone who goes to college takes a psychology class and takes an English class and takes a math class and takes basic science classes. Virtually no college assesses how much students learn in any subject and publishes data in a way that would allow you to compare it with other colleges. That information simply does not exist.

Then there are other kinds of data that I mention in the article — things like the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Collegiate Learning Assessment. NSSE [pronounced Nessie] is a measure of teaching quality and student learning. The Collegiate Learning Assessment is a test of critical thinking, analytic reasoning and communication skills that is content nonspecific. You can give it to an engineering major and you can give it to an English major and learn the same thing. Hundreds of colleges and universities administer these surveys and tests to their students, but most of them don't publish the data. They keep it to themselves.

Why is that?
There's no upside for them. There have been a few cases where open-access colleges that don't have much to lose will try to get their data out there. A couple of years ago, I wrote a column about the University of Nebraska at Omaha — there's the University of Nebraska, which is the one with the football team, and Omaha is the commuter campus. The Omaha campus administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment, and when they issued a press release saying, "We did really, really well," they were yelled at and condemned by a lot of people in higher ed for doing something that was inappropriate. There's this conviction that it's wrong to use any kind of standardized instrument to make any claims about learning.

Because all colleges believe they are each beautiful and unique snowflakes?
The thing about snowflakes is that they're all small, they're all white, and they're all cold. They're not actually all that different from one another. Sure, every college is different in some way from its peers, but I would defy anyone to explain to me the difference between Indiana University Southeast and Indiana University Northwest. They're like the same thing, basically. They all teach the same classes by and large — business, engineering, education. These are the classes that college students actually take. Very few people are studying 5th century Chinese calligraphy. So colleges are not as different from one another as they would like people to believe. The argument is basically "If I'm unique, I'm incomparable. And if I'm incomparable, I'm not accountable, because no one can judge me." Colleges have a vested interest in being in a position where no one can judge them, because then they can do whatever they want.

Are colleges given too much respect?
Universities definitely get too much of a free pass. We have not gotten in the habit of asking hard questions about whether or not universities are doing a good job of teaching their students. Some of them are. There are fantastic universities, fantastic departments, fantastic programs, but there are also terrible universities, terrible departments, terrible programs. And the great fiction is that there are none of the latter. Listen to the way that we talk to students about the admissions process. Even as they compete for the best students, schools say, "It's all about fit. It's not about finding the best university. It's about finding the university that's right for you." And so there's this polite fiction that every university is right for some student, and every student is right for some university. Well, that's just not true.

Three years ago, as you write, a Federal Government report noted that there is a "remarkable absence of accountability mechanisms to ensure that colleges succeed in educating students." What accountability mechanisms should there be?
I think we should start with the easy things. You should be accountable for graduating a reasonable percentage of your students compared with other universities that have similar students. Harvard has the highest graduation rate in the country, at 98%. That's probably too high. I'm pretty sure you'd have to shoot somebody not to graduate from Harvard. Not all colleges could reasonably be expected to have a 98% graduation rate. However, if you have a 40% graduation rate and your peers have a 60% graduation rate, it's reasonable to hold you accountable for improvement.

And who is going to hold these schools accountable?
State governments have to do it. A tricky thing about higher-ed policy formation is that for a long time, the Federal Government did nothing. States are the ones that actually pay for the operating costs of universities, and states are the ones that legally have authority over them. They really have to play a much stronger role in holding colleges and universities accountable.

Can't they hypothetically do that only with public universities, not private ones?
In theory, all those private colleges are chartered by the state. Sure, the privacy of private colleges should be respected. I do think, however, that it's reasonable to ask private colleges to disclose a lot more information. I do think that's a fair exchange for the public dollar. And private colleges do get a lot of money from the public. They don't pay taxes. And if you're sitting on a billion-dollar endowment and you're not paying taxes on capital gains, that's a pretty good deal.

Higher education is way behind K-12 in terms of public awareness. You can start almost any conversation in K-12 education policy with the premise that our schools aren't as good as they could be and need to get better. People will argue the method, but they won't really argue the point. They won't say, "Oh, there's nothing wrong with our K-12 schools. They're awesome. We just need to keep giving them more money and stay out of their business." But that's what a lot of people think about colleges. And colleges do more than anyone to perpetuate that myth. But it is a myth.