Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Reforming Higher Education

August 27, 2013, 1:00 p.m.

The President Has His Plan, What's Yours?

President Obama wants to reform higher education. He has a plan. It's designed to address the rampant acceleration of college tuition (well beyond general inflation rates), improve the value received by students for those tuition dollars, and provide more transparency in the comparative value between institutions. Tamar Lewin, "Obama's Plan Aims to Lower Cost of College," New York Times, August 22, 2013, p. A1. [Photo credit: multiple sources.]

He wants metrics that will include levels of tuition, graduation rates, and graduates' income.

The Administration concedes it hasn't yet worked out all the details. And well it should. But I hasten to add that I think the undertaking worthwhile. The fact there are problems doesn't mean the effort should be abandoned.

One of the problems is illustrated by the U.S. News law school rankings. (The President's proposal for law schools is that we all just lop off the third year. Voila, a one-third tuition cut! Well, not quite.) It is so easy to game the numbers that go into the rankings, as I've earlier laid out: "Random Thoughts on Law School Rankings." Want to improve a school's graduation rates for the President? Just turn your "grade creep" into a "grade walk," or better yet, "grade run." Just stop giving students Ds and Fs when they don't perform. Everybody graduates.

There's always the apples and oranges problems when comparing institutions. We have it with our Iowa City schools. Parents socioeconomic status (measured among K-12 students by who does, and does not, qualify for "free and reduced lunch") makes a difference. Children with parents in the upper 1%, or 10%, are more likely to have been read to, traveled more widely, seen more museums, concerts, theater, national parks, and provided additional intellectual and cultural stimulation in the form of academic tutoring, coaching in sports, or training in music and the arts. If those parents' children are having trouble in school, their parents are more likely to intervene on their children's behalf with teachers and administrators, and to be more effective when they do so, both because of their skill and their position in the community.

Comparing schools by comparing the test scores of students in school A with the students in school B is almost totally meaningless, without knowing more about those students. Moreover, there's not a lot of point to the exercise in a district like Iowa City's, where all the schools are of roughly equal (high) quality. But if you'd want to do it, you'd need to look at cohorts' scores -- because stability in general, and having gone through a single school, makes a difference for the student and is a better measure of the school. That is, look at the test scores of upper socio-economic kids in 6th grade, all of whom entered that school's kindergarten and have been there ever since. Do the same for the free-and-reduced lunch kids -- if you can find any, because many of those who entered kindergarten may have been homeless, or otherwise transferred from one school to another during the school years. Now, if you insist on comparing schools, you can compare those results with the comparably created results from other schools.

It was either Massachusetts or Connecticut that did a variant of this in dealing with the test scores generated as a result of No Child Left Behind. Goals were set for individual schools based on reasonable expectations given their demographics. They were then "ranked" in a sense against themselves. A school that could reasonably be expected to have test scores at the 93rd percentile, and only came in at the 78th percentile, knew it needed to make improvement. One that was projected to be at the 22nd percentile, and came in at the 38th, was praised for its performance.

The President's proposed metrics will create similar challenges.

Reduced-cost post-high school education for all is a major component in any state or nation's economic engine. All America benefited from the GI-Bill-funded college education provided veterans of World War II, and its contribution to America's post-war economic boom. California's near-free Universities of California, California State Universities, and community colleges boosted that state's economy to what would have made it the seventh largest economy in the world -- had it been a nation. The state (and city) of New York has reaped similar economic benefits from its very low cost college education system. This morning's Daily Iowan editorial hits on the same theme, "Invest in Education, Not Tax Cuts," The Daily Iowan, August 27, 2013, p. 4 ("The best way forward for Iowa is to invest in education instead of throwing money at property-tax cuts that barely affect corporations' bottom lines.").

One of the cost-saving-to-free alternatives to the present system involves the use of MOOCs ("massive open online courses"). See, "Higher Ed's Triumph of Hope Over History; Why Pay $100,000 or More for What's Available For Free?" August 18, 2013; "Higher Ed: When UI Loses Its Monopoly; From SUI to ACT," February 20, 2010.

The University of Iowa is not worried:
University of Iowa President Sally Mason said her school is moving methodically, but slowly on the latest education trend, massive online open courses, or MOOCs. . . . “Now there’s a lot of hype about it,” Mason said. “Some say the residential university will go away because we can have these MOOCs. I don’t belive that for a second.” . . . [S]he doesn’t see Iowa racing into the MOOC world.
Editorial, "New grads must create their own jobs," Quad City Times, August 25, 2013.

Meanwhile, the editorial continues, "University of Iowa Vice President of Research and Economic Development Dan Reed launched his own MOOC, about MOOCs: 'MOOCs: History, Hype and Reality.'”

I claim no expertise as an educational reformer. But I think education policy is so important for every individual, regardless of age and educational attainment, that I think everyone should not only feel free, but should be encouraged, to participate in the national discussion the President is trying to encourage.

So here's where I am at the moment in terms of cost control:

1. Do everything possible to reduce the time (and therefore cost) of obtaining a college degree.

2. Recognize community colleges are for many individuals (and our economy) the nation's best option. The old statistics I could easily find indicate that in 1999 there were 1655 community colleges with 5.6 million students -- 47% of all students enrolled in public institutions. "Digest of Education Statistics; Community College Facts at a Glance," Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education.

Many of the trades and professions for which a community college can prepare a student pay as well or better than the jobs in which many conventional college graduates end up. And they are certainly more precisely focused on what employers say they need. There's no substitute for an old fashioned liberal arts education when it comes to improving meaningful quality and joy of life. But there are many substitutes for students whose primary motive in pursuing a college degree is what they believe it will do for their income.

3. Encourage collaboration and cooperation among area high schools, community colleges, and universities to ease high school students obtaining college credits with such things as high school AP (advanced placement) courses, college CLEP (College Level Examination Program) exams, and joint enrollment (high school and community college, or university). Apply the recommendations of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year, that recognize the year can be used to much greater advantage by, among other things, getting seniors out of the high school building and into job shadowing and internships, research in the community, or community college or university courses. ("The Commission calls for moving away from a system in which the senior year is just more of the same to one in which the senior year provides time to explore options and prove knowledge and skills. Ideally, every senior should complete a capstone project, perform an internship, complete a research project, participate in community service, or take college-level courses." Id., p. 22.) Not incidentally, this approach has the added advantage of relieving "overcrowding" in the high schools.

An editorial in this morning's Press-Citizen notes that "the ties between UI and Kirkwood have strengthened quite a bit . . . a '2 Plus 2 Guaranteed Graduation Plan' [lets] students know in advance which Kirkwood credits apply directly to UI majors. The university has rented out classroom space in University Capitol Centre for Kirkwood to offer math and foreign language classes within walking distance of thousands of UI students. [All of which has created] a more collaborative, cooperative and innovative K-16 education system in Iowa." Editorial, "Voters Should Renew Levy for Kirkwood," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 27, 2013, p. A7.

4. Cut the time at a high-priced college or university for a B.A. degree from eight semesters (10 if the student takes five years) to three. This would be similar to the "2 Plus 2" plan described above, with a modification. This low cost option would involve two years at a (comparatively low cost) community college, earning credits transferable to a university. This would be followed by the equivalent in credits of three semesters as a conventional student (with conventional costs) at the university (or conventional college). Up to the equivalent of one semester's credits could be earned by students who are able and willing to take, and be examined successfully over, MOOC courses, provided for free by other institutions. They could constitute the entire course load for a semester, or be spread over four semesters. Students would be charged for the testing/certification for the MOOC courses at the cost of administering the exams (hopefully in the $50 to $100 range, rather than the university's per-credit charge for in-classroom instruction).

I agree with UI President Mason that there will not be many high school graduates with sufficient self-discipline to put themselves through the equivalent of four years of MOOC instruction -- even if it is their only path to the college education they could not otherwise afford. But I disagree that MOOC instruction is not destined to play an ever larger role in higher education -- including at the University of Iowa -- along the lines of what I've described above. For starters, it already is, here as well as elsewhere. And increasingly, the certification/credit for completing such courses that I predicted three-and-a-half years ago is also coming into play.

Whatever we end up doing, the pressure to educate more Americans, at less cost, is coming from the White House, the State House, American parents, and students. We are going to need all the innovation and imagination we can bring to bear. My thoughts on the matter are always evolving and changing. As of this morning, they're what I've outlined above.

# # #


Anonymous said...

First of all, we need to make sure everyone is better educated before they go off to college, or go into trades jobs, or service, or office jobs. That way we hit 100% of the people and not the ones who just go on to college. The entire population is important.

Nick said...

Normally, I leave the comments to others. It's a little odd, commenting on your own blog essay.

But in this case, I've left so much out of it that an explanation may be in order.

As Anonymous has noted, there's little about K-12 education. Although the essay is certainly not limited to "college." In fact, I think it's long past time we extend "public schools" from K-12 to K-16, as I've indicated with the focus on community colleges. During the three years I served on the local school board I wrote an opinion column every two weeks on K-12 issues, available here.

The omissions are primarily as we say, "a concession to the shortness of life." But they are serious, and very much related to the subject of the blog essay.

What are our goals, our ideals, for our society, our culture? What is the role of parenting, preschool, and K-12 in reaching those goals? What about housing, nutrition and exercise programs for kids, and jobs, parenting skills, and education for their parents? What are we doing inside those school buildings? What do we want the outcome to be after 13 or 17 years of "education"? As I often put it to my school board colleagues, "How would we know if we'd ever been successful?"

Would it be helpful to tear it all down and restructure our educational institutions and approach? For example, the human species has moved from foraging, through an agricultural age, an industrial age, and on into today's information age. And yet our K-12 schedule (currently challenged by the tourism industry as providing too much education), is still rooted in the agricultural age, while some of the instruction and and schools' procedures are still designed to prepare students for the industrial age.

This blog essay is primarily designed to address the very limited question of what we can do with what we now have -- for those who will benefit from a college education -- given the current conventional approach to educating post-high-school students, and the goals toward which it appears to strive, and given the current and escalating costs, to enable more students to be educated at less cost to them and the taxpayers.

That's a lot of unchallenged givens. I've not addressed the appropriateness of what we pay football coaches and university presidents, and why they seem to have all the high priced administrative support that they do. I have not addressed the concerns of one reader, who pointed out to me that I haven't said anything about eliminating all taxpayer support of K-12 and higher education. There are many aspects of American education that could benefit from innovative, imaginative thinking. Most of them will have to await another day, and other authors.

john said...

I think Americans have become vaguely uneasy since the Crash of '08. They see other countries gaining on the US, while most comparisons of industrialized countries, using any criteria, seem to show the US with a low or middling rating. Increasingly, we are questioning our assumptions and reevaluating our institutions.

Higher education is in the center of the bulls eye. The integrity of grades is suspect. The relevancy of courses is being questioned. The value of various degrees is disputed.

If I understand correctly, over 25% of Americans don't even graduate high school. About 60% of all adults attempt college and about half of those graduate with a four year degree. Even that winnowing, however, produces about 33% more graduates than can be absorbed into jobs requiring a degree.

Meanwhile, some portion of the jobs requiring a degree are overestimating their needs and a good portion of college grads are not actually well educated, in any event. Anybody who has hired, recruited or managed much can confirm the latter.

Clearly, we are wasting huge sums on poor and unnecessary education.

To straighten this out we need a national conversation.ff only 20% of jobs require a college degree, let's discourage the two-thirds of would-be college attendees who inevitably won't need college for their careers, from entering college. Let's deny them subsidies and guaranteed loans for college.

Let's require standardized college graduation exit exams - actually open to anybody, whether they graduate or not - that ranks everybody who takes it on a standardized test. Let's give extra points to anyone who is reasonably proficient in two or more languages.

GPA's are meaningless.