Thursday, June 5, 2014

Accountability Can Be Good

My work style pegs me as one who uses feedback and recognition to find meaning in my work. Some, like author Lauren Stiller Rikleen, might attribute that more to the fact that I'm a Millenial. Whatever the root cause of it is, that feedback and recognition holds me accountable to what I do. If I were a college, I'd be a horrible employee.

My guess is that the college ratings system proposed by President Obama is viewed as more of an insult than a way to give feedback. Consider who is likely presiding over these colleges in question (Boomers, maybe Gen Xers) and think about how they typically receive feedback (negatively - it's often seen as a threat ). Perhaps the built-in accountability that goes along with the proposed ratings system is meant as "Let's make sure we're doing the best job we can," but is heard as "We don't trust you to do it right, so we need a way to keep you in check."

Of course, what it comes down to is money - and, to an extent, rightly so. The InsideHigherEd article "Beyond Obama ratings plan, higher education groups are divided over federal accountability" focuses on this component in terms of the federal grants and loans it gives out to colleges. The system proposes linking that money with how well the institution performs. (Doesn't that sound familiar? Like pay-for-performance in K-12?) The emphasis on two-year programs as a means to be time- and cost-savvy cannot be ignored. 

First, aren't these two different things? Obviously, there is some philosophical and inherent connection between the success of a student and the success of a college. In fact, I advocate we improve colleges by aiming for student success. But do successful colleges always produce successful students? There seems to be a lot of assumption when we talk about success equaling money. When we say "how well the institution performs," what exactly do we mean? How many students graduated? How many got jobs? How many got jobs that pay well enough to pay back their student loans? 

Second, is it realistic to use colleges as the only variable? As an educator, I have seen first-hand how many variables go into a student's performance in the classroom and in getting a job. Consider the general characteristics of a community college student; to name a few, these students are more likely to be older, minority, and first-generation. What's more, projects like Lumina's community-based postsecondary attainment project demonstrate just how much investment it takes to get some students to graduation (was that the case for many higher ed administrators?). Where is the line between what the student is responsible for, and what colleges can realistically be held accountable for? 

Perhaps the biggest piece that's missing from a discussion about accountability is the relationship between colleges and companies. On the one hand, we all know a job applicant who, while smart, capable, and driven, missed out on job opportunities because he/she doesn't interview well. On the other, the nuances of hiring are often a major source of stress for graduates (there's even a report that states that vocal fry can cost you the job if you're female). Is it fair to measure the success of a college by a company's decision to hire? 

Herein lies just one way a system like this might be beneficial. In this regard, both colleges and industry have room for improvement, and there does seem to be some movement. For example, an Economist/Lumina challenge to bridge the gap between the workforce and higher education seeks to provide a way for colleges and companies to communicate about what skills employees need to be taught. If a college will be measured based on the jobs their graduates get, wouldn't it be beneficial to define that pathway? If companies won't hire/pay employees who don't have these skills, is it then the obligation of the college to provide them? We now have something in place to spur that needed change. 

The idea behind the college ratings system is to ensure that students are getting what they pay for: a good-paying job. Are we, in a defensive reaction, completely ignored the potential for a system like this to make some substantial, student-driven change for the good of their education? To be fair, there are steps to be taken on both sides, but higher education often gets in its own way. (This is sometimes literally the case, as with the struggles many students have with simply navigating the higher education system.) The benefits of attending a 2-year program appear to be leveling with that of a 4-year program, yet we continue to focus on transfer programs and initiatives to get students into a 4-year setting. We continue to legislate for the ideal instead of the real, and we need a catalyst to push that change. Two-year colleges can't be the answer and the problem

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