Thursday, June 12, 2014

An Odd Agreement

Usually, an opinion written by the owner of a for-profit education business would completely turn me off. But this public comment from former Washington Post CEO Don Graham to Education Secretary Arne Duncan prompted a few thoughtful nods. Although I don't agree with everything Graham writes, the predicted effect of regulation on colleges is worth talking about. 


In my view, the two main points from this letter are: 1) we need as much zest and innovation invested into the post-secondary education of low-incomes students as we have their K-12 education, and 2) the proposed regulation will only stifle that innovation. Specifically, Graham refers to the proposed metrics by which colleges would be regulated: the debt students incur, their income, and the number of student borrowers who default on their loans. What struck me most about this letter is here: 
What do those metrics have in common? They all get better as a college educates FEWER low-income students. The lowest-income students incur the most debt; therefore they will represent the greatest risk to colleges under this regulation. The best way a college can hold down on student debt is: do not admit very low-income students. But this flies in the face of many administration policies: the President's desire for the United States to lead the world in adult graduation rates again and the First Lady's signature (and absolutely correct) emphasis on the crucial importance of college graduation for the lowest-income adults. 
Now, it is at this point that the purist-educator in me says, "That's why you can't run a college like a business!" But the reality is that the economic definition of a college education is changing. Who benefits from a college education? Higher education is both a public and a private good , a collective good, and the question is increasingly about how to split the bill. The government, understandably, wants to make sure their (shrinking) portion is well-used. The problem is that, as Catherine Rampell writes,
 ...shifting the burden of college costs away from taxpayers and onto students is so shortsighted. It means that attending college, or more important, the prospect of actually graduating , is stretching further out of the reach of the workers who need to upgrade their skills most — and whose skills the country’s future depends on. 
So, now I'm confused: students are paying more for their college education, at a higher rate, but more regulation is being proposed...What exactly would this regulation be regulating? 

Would it regulate the academic "product" that colleges offer? Graham reminds us in his letter that "...the income of a college graduate in the years soon after graduation will have something to do with her income before she was admitted to college, particularly in the case of adult learners." The same can be said about what students bring with them academically. Too often this is not enough, and too often this is not their fault. The latest example of this is the case  brought on by a group of California public school students who claim that California law regarding teacher tenure violates children's constitutional right to receive a basic education. The laws were indeed found to violate student rights. What's more, recent attempts by the government to address the academic preparation levels of students for success in college seem disconnected from their audience. This audio about what students think about the Common Core State Standards is very indicative of this breakdown, as is the primary finding that there's little evidence that teacher job satisfaction or commitment has changed in response to NCLB, despite what other media reports say. 

Or perhaps the regulation is to ensure graduates are ready for the workforce? This is another hot issue since, as American Institutes for Research posts:
In a 2014 Gallup poll, 96% of chief academic officers felt their students were prepared for success in the workforce. This rosy view was at odds with the finding that only 11% of business leaders consider college graduates prepared for the world of work. Clearly, there is a disturbing disconnect between the perceptions of those living in the ivory tower versus those in the real world affected by those living in the ivory tower. So, it seems, something may be seriously wrong with our preconceived notions about what and how much students learn in college. (Why NAEP Should Go to College)
Companies like Manpower Group put out report after report on the "talent shortage," and a recent media report on the "skills gap" is easy to find. But can we really deduce how well a graduate is prepared for the workforce by if he/she is able to pay back on his/her student loans? 

Or would it regulate what colleges spend their money on? Agenda for Generational Equity from Common Sense Action states that 
It is college completion, not college attendance, that truly leads to employment. The unemployment rate for those with some college but no degree (7.7 percent) is hardly better than for those with only a high school diploma (8.3 percent). We need to encourage degree completion and create support systems for students at risk of dropping out.
Students like Lacey Bowman can probably attest to the value of the support networks colleges now include; however, we often forget that those cost money and are incredibly difficult to pin down their financial worth. The cost of graduation is much, much more than the tuition a student pays. 

Might it actually regulate innovation in post-secondary? Graham points out the potential issue of admitting low-income students for colleges, but my feeling is that the recent, heavy media coverage might reverse this. Some may go so far as to create initiatives and programs specifically to make sure the public knows about their commitment to such students, to academic quality, to workforce preparation, and/or to support systems. In other words, it might actually direct what colleges will focus on.  

This is certainly not to say that colleges wouldn't benefit from an accountability system or a review of their finances, or processes in general. The mark of an excellent teacher is her willingness to pause, reflect, and seek changes that will improve. Sometimes, somebody just needs to ask. 


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