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October 1, 2009

assessing higher education

I used to think that a "good" college or university was one where the students had excellent skills and the professors published lots of fine scholarship. But colleges and universities can select students and faculty who are already great before they show up. An institution that has very strong market position basically uses its admissions office to guarantee a talented student body and its hiring committees to produce an illustrious faculty. It doesn't have to educate well.

One might hope that the way to attain a strong market position is to provide an excellent education. But I think that's only one factor among many. Imagine two schools:

1. Low Budget State starts with no reputation. It has a fairly drab campus; entering students have low average SATs. The dedicated faculty and staff have really thought about curriculum and pedagogy and deliver a great education, appropriate for their students. Prospective applicants may realize that the teaching is good, although this is a little hard to tell because test scores and job prospects are not too impressive. What's more, prospective students know that they won't get much reputational advantage from attending this school, nor will the amenities be very comfortable, nor will the other students be especially stimulating, nor will they enter powerful alumni networks. So the best qualified students may turn their attention to ...

2. Legacy University, which was was founded in 1750. Its campus is on the Register of National Historic Treasures and three of its alumni have become presidents of the United States. People have heard of it as far away as China. It only accepts one in 20 of its applicants and is able to screen for very high SATs. The faculty and staff are quite uninterested in undergraduate education. However, there are tremendous amenities, including the palazzo in Venice and the observatory at the South Pole. Discussions among students are very stimulating and educational, because the university is so selective. Graduates run the country, thanks to the advantages of a diploma.

This imaginary example hints at some real problems. The system provides few incentives for actually teaching students. Young people from advantaged background have a huge leg up in the admissions process and thereby reap most of the advantages. Public subsidies (grants and tax deductions for alumni donations) help to underwrite this stratified system. The whole thing might be justifiable if it were the best way to generate high-quality research and culture. But I am not sure this works, because it is easier for Legacy University to hire established scholars than to develop their scholarly skills. As for Low Budget State--its faculty have little time for publishing and are locked out of prestigious scholarly networks.

It's modestly helpful to have alternative rankings that don't use reputation or entering students' SAT scores, as US News and World Report does, but instead try to measure "value added." Washington Monthly is the leader here. But such alternative rankings won't help if there are rational reasons for students and faculty to opt for reputation over impact.

Another approach is to evaluate the impact of teaching and scholarship and let incentives (such as tenure, salary, and government grants) go to those who add the most value. This strategy makes professors nervous because they imagine someone giving a simplistic, multiple-choice assessment of subtle material. For instance, if the purpose of reading the Phaedrus is to spark in the student's soul a yearning for wisdom, can you imagine a pre/post survey that measures what's important? ("Mark the answer that comes closest to your opinion. 1. My soul completely shuns wisdom. 2. My soul is indifferent to wisdom. 3. My soul is strangely drawn to wisdom ....") There are also valid concerns about restrictions on intellectual freedom--not to mention illegitimate concerns about having to work harder.

I think it's incumbent on us to figure out better ways to assess impact. That won't solve the problem, but it will at least help prospective students and faculty who want to go where the education is best.

October 1, 2009 9:39 AM | category: academia | Comments


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