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Posted at 10:50 AM ET, 02/23/2011

Fixing higher ed: Trinity's Patricia McGuire

By Daniel de Vise

In a story that published Sunday in The Washington Post Magazine, I offer eight suggestions to "fix" higher education. After reading the story, you can rank the ideas in a poll, which you will find a bit farther down on this blog.

For the story, I sought help from several great leaders and thinkers. Some submitted their own thoughts on how to improve higher education. I'm posting them this week. Here is the seventh, from Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University (and subject of my last Post magazine article!). mcguire.jpg

1. Improving accountability for real learning outcomes

Even though everyone talks the talk of college access, there's little public understanding of what collegiate-level learning actually looks like today and even less understanding of how to measure success. While various colleges and universities are able to communicate their results individually, the industry, as a whole, seems opaque and self-serving to the general public, unable or unwilling to account for what students learn and whether that learning is useful.

Higher education must solve this problem. Federal or state efforts to 'fix' the 'accountability' challenge by imposing more reporting requirements will still not produce meaningful data for consumers --- but it will cause institutions to spend even more time and money on more regulatory reports that wind up going nowhere or creating data sets that are only interesting to wonks.

Here's what institutions can do:

a) clearly state the specific learning outcomes for general education and major programs, and require the faculty to develop their course syllabi in ways that embed those outcomes in every course, so that student learning is progressive across the curriculum; for example, if an outcome of general education is that every student will be able to write proficiently for professional life, then every course must have writing objectives appropriate to the nature of the material and the level of the course. (This may seem obvious, but it's actually hard to get faculty agreement on embedding general education objectives in courses in specific disciplines.) Develop a methodology for reporting aggregate outcomes against these learning objectives.

b) identify and promulgate institutional goals for student success from semester-to-semester, year-to-year, and through the collegiate pathway; institutions should articulate these goals and report success against them, rather than allowing external agencies to set the goals. Why? Because different institutions serve different kinds of students who attend in different patterns and have different learning needs. One size does not fit all, and institutions have the best understanding of how to measure success in relation to their student populations.

c) stop using the wrong measurements for describing success, especially the current method for calculating "graduation rates." For example, the current fad of global reporting of "graduation rates" makes little sense given the great diversity among types of institutions serving many different kinds of learners. The current methodology imposes the same yardstick on all institutions, and it just does not work. The current yardstick measures only the behavior of the most traditional kinds of students --- full-time first-time freshmen, as reported in the federal database IPEDS --- and whether they graduated from the institution where they started in 6 years or less. If they transfer to another institution and still graduate in 4 years, they're considered dropouts by this measure. If a student in the cohort stops out for any number of good reasons, and later finishes in 7 or 8 years, that's still a dropout. A student who starts full-time and converts to part-time status, still completing but later than six years, is still a dropout. A student who started years ago and returns late in life to complete a degree is not counted at all. The whole idea of 4-6 year completion of a college degree is something retained from the days when mostly 18-22 year old students with no other obligations were able to attend full-time. In fact, that population is a minority today; nearly 75 percent of all undergraduates today are 'non-traditional' by such factors as independence, part-time attendance, commuter status, work obligations, parenting, age and other factors.

d) make accreditation reports public. Most of the data and information that the public should know about institutional quality, challenges, successes and problems are in the accreditation reports. Currently, it's up to the institution to promulgate a report publicly. Some institutions are shy about this because they want to mute the bad news and only portray themselves in the best light. This is unrealistic, and the reason why our industry is considered opaque. Put the challenges out there and explain how we're fixing them. Denying the existence of problems is simply obtuse.

e) collaborate with all efforts to improve K-12 education, since making high school graduates more competent is the fastest way I know of to improve collegiate outcomes. We spend too much time fixing the deficiencies of lower education, and that loses time for concentrating on higher learning.

2. Controlling Price and Cost

I will be very unpopular with my presidential colleagues after this section, but here are just a few suggestions:

a) adopt institutional habits of economic modesty, starting at the top --- while presidential salaries and 'perks' may not be the main reason why prices keep rising, in fact, the public perceives bloated executive compensation as a serious part of the problem; if we lived more modestly, we would be taken more seriously in our claims of efforts to control costs; (and, PS, stop listening to executive compensation consultants whose main job it is to drive up salaries!) This same advice goes through institutions on other manifestations of living very well while the general public suffers in the economic downturn; institutions need to work harder on the ethic of social justice as seen through the lens of institutional comfort levels;

b) stop the arms race of amenities and rankings --- the "mine is bigger than yours" syndrome on campus facilities and amenities, arguably a syndrome related to consumer expectations, is part of what's driven prices into the stratosphere. Someone must pay for all of that infrastructure. Students say they want the latest, but do they really understand the cost, and shouldn't we be better educators around the cost-price spiral? Related to all of that, the only real use for the current popular rankings seems to be driving tuition prices higher as schools race to be more 'competitive' according to some publication's idea of what matters. Also related, the major rating agencies, especially Moody's, also contribute to the price spiral because they view lower tuition prices as a signal that an institution is less competitive, which means it may be less worthy of a good credit rating. It's a vicious spiral.

c) figure out ways to create significantly greater efficiencies by pooling resources across institutions where it makes sense ---- whether group purchases for health insurance and technology, or using consortia to eliminate under-enrolled courses by having cross-institutional agreements about who-offers-what in certain disciplines. How many universities in Washington run under-enrolled Organic II courses, e.g.? Collectively, we might need only one such course cycled through each semester.

d) be ruthless in controlling expenses. The student learning outcomes will be just as terrific with a significantly smaller travel and entertainment budget.

e) advocate for sensible federal and state investments in collegiate infrastructure as a way to help institutions to control prices. This may seem like a weird idea in the current economic climate. But, in fact, in the 1960's and 1970's federal support helped to build campuses --- residence halls, libraries, science laboratories --- some of it was loans, some grants. Public investment in the collegiate infrastructure could be used as a way to incentivize institutions to control the cost of construction as well as reducing the need to pass those costs along to consumers --- put another way, the public purse will pay either directly through subsidies for construction and technology, or through increased demand for financial aid.

3. Restoring Higher Education's Role/Reputation for Useful Innovation

Higher education in the U.S. is one of the great generative forces for our society, and yet, our reputation for innovation and role as primary innovators for communities have suffered in the last several decades. Whether the innovation is scientific as a result of great R&D at a big university, or pedagogical as a result of terrific faculty work in a small college, every institution has significantly more creative capacity than we currently reveal to the general public.

How can we do this? We need help. In recent years, most of the nation's major foundations have turned their attention away from higher education toward K-12 schools, or other issues. Federal grants for creative work have also diminished. Innovation does require some level of investment beyond the regular institutional budget. Higher education leaders need to create new conversations with potential funders, both private and public, around the kinds of innovation we could be contributing to improvement of education, economic productivity, global competitiveness and even national security --- not just more scholarly papers, but actual programmatic responses to critical social needs.

For example, on the topic of education reform, universities might provide more direct services to schools in their communities, perhaps even going so far as developing charter schools or assuming responsibility for a neighboring school. But such direct engagement requires financial support for the personnel and other costs associated with the endeavor. At Trinity, for example, we're often asked to provide support for schools, and we try to respond as we can, but we could respond more robustly with a complete program --- not just occasional volunteer service --- if we knew our costs could be supported through public or private grants.

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By Daniel de Vise  | February 23, 2011; 10:50 AM ET
Categories:  Access, Administration, Attainment, Finance, Pedagogy, Students  | Tags:  Trinity Washington University Patricia McGuire, fixing higher ed washington post, fixing higher education, fixing higher education post magazine  
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