Higher-Ed Accountability: Has Its Time Come?

Several weeks ago, Texas State Technical College System (TSTC) took an unprecedented step. Unprecedented, that is, for American institutions of higher learning.

TSTC has hit on the novel idea that it should be judged — and paid — on the basis of results. 

In the past, most university leaders have resisted mightily proposals to link their institutions’ state funding with results such as graduation rates, etc. Not so with TSTC, a system of public two-year postsecondary institutions offering technical training. At present, in collaboration with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, TSTC is crafting a model in which all of its state funding will depend on the employment and earnings of its graduates.

Simply put, under the plan, TSTC will not receive state funding for a student until and unless that student is placed in a job. One is hard-put to imagine an arrangement better suited to providing the accountability to which taxpayers are entitled.

Many of the details of the plan remain to be worked out. Moreover, the differences in mission between TSTC and other higher-education institutions prevent it from being instantly applicable universally. 

But what does apply — and more than ever in these days of rising tuitions and declining learning outcomes — is the principle animating TSTC’s “returned-value model,” which, stated baldly, is that results matter in every other aspect of life; it’s high time that they matter more in higher education also. The current funding formula for Texas public higher education — as in most other states — is based primarily on the number of students enrolled at each institution. The assumption has been that, once enrolled, the universities would know what to do with the students. 

But recent studies, such as those reported in last year’s book Academically Adrift, call this assumption into question, to put it mildly. Tracking several thousand traditional students from the time that they enrolled in Fall 2005 to Spring 2009, “across a wide range of four-year colleges and universities,” Adrift reports that 45 percent of students showed “little if any growth over the first two years of college in their ability to perform tasks requiring critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA).” After four years in college, more than one in three continued to show “little if any growth.”

All of this leads to the following modest proposal: Why not base state funding for public colleges and universities, or at least a substantial portion of it, on actual student learning, as measured by the CLA or the comparable Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP)?

At this proposal one can expect a collective shriek of faculty indignation across the land.  And given the fact that it is faculty, not college presidents, who decide all matters academic at the bulk of our colleges and universities, expect few if any presidents to risk a no-confidence vote on behalf of helping to ensure that students learn. Among other imperatives, a long tenure as a university president carries two requirements: (1) find out what the faculty wants, and (2) get it.

And yet, glimmerings of reform do appear at times, and given the severity of our higher-education crisis we can expect more. TSTC’s “returned-value model” is only the latest. Some states, such as South Dakota, recognized the problem and acted to address it as long as a decade ago. In the late ’90s, the South Dakota legislature and board of regents withstood the faculty onslaught and succeeded in requiring learning-outcomes-based funding, as measured by the CAAP, for all of its public colleges and universities.

For the sake of our students, one can only hope that, as go Texas and South Dakota, so goes the country.

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