Phi Beta Cons

We Have Flawed Higher Ed Data — Reason for Worry?

Ben Miller, a senior analyst at the New America Foundation, writes about The College Graduation Rate Flaw That No One’s Talking About. The flaw is that it is hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons of graduation or “attainment” rates across institutions. This is exactly the sort of problem that central planning types fret about. Without good data, how can they run things the best way? Instead of worrying about imperfect higher education data, I suggest that we just stop collecting it.

Terribly heretical idea, what! But people also thought it heretical when Hong Kong’s financial secretary, the estimable Sir John Cowperthwaite, not just suggested stopping the collection of economic data, but actually did so. His reason was that statistics were invariably used by meddlesome politicians to interfere with the economy, so it would be better not to have any for them to use. Exactly the same applies to higher ed data. They encourage politicians and policy wonks to devise ways of “improving” outcomes, such as rewarding schools with “good” graduation rates and punishing those with “bad” rates. Instead of deepening the government’s already extensive and harmful interference with higher education, we should go back toward laissez-faire. If students were spending their own money on education, they would care about their own stats and the rest of us could think about other things.

For readers who are not familiar with Sir John Cowperthwaite, I recommend this tribute to him by Cato Institute’s Marian Tupy.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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