The Agenda

Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio in Higher Education

Steve Kolowich’s profile of Salman Khan for Inside Higher Ed describes an interview in which Khan offered a fascinating lens through which to view the failure of U.S. higher education to meet the changing needs of students:

In a conversation with Inside Higher Ed last week, Khan expressed some ideas on how to improve the signaling quality of academic credentials. Under the current regime, a degree from a college amounts to something similar to an acceptance letter from that college, he says. And that is not ideal for employers.

“We find a lot of college grads with high GPAs that have been exposed to many things … but even in their purported majors, they have a pretty weak grasp of” essential concepts, Khan said. “It’s almost like you view them as a blank slate, and the most impressive thing about them is that they got in to University X.”

In other words, the current price of a college degree is not just the balance of four years’ tuition; one must also consider the cost, to students and employers, of the ambiguity hanging over what the degree actually means.

One root of the problem is the fact that the college degree is issued by the same institution that is in charge of setting, and enforcing, the standards of that credential, says Khan, who holds four degrees himself. This is tantamount to investment banks rating their own securities, he says. Meanwhile, the accrediting agencies that are in charge of making sure those “ratings” are legitimate do not currently focus on what students coming out of those institutions measurably know.

That is why, when an audience member at Khan’s Future of State Universities talk asked whether Khan Academy was interested in credentialing, its tutor-in-chief answered with an enthusiastic yes-but. Khan told Inside Higher Ed that he does not want to turn his free, online trove — whose 2,700 videos could theoretically be organized into course-length sequences — into a credential-granting institution. What he does want to do is advocate for the creation and mainstreaming of credential-granting institutions that exist wholly separate (“decoupled,” in Khan-speak) from the institutions (including his) that do the teaching.

In Khan’s ideal world, this would mean an independent third party that tests specific competencies and awards credentials corresponding to knowledge areas in which a student can demonstrate mastery — like the MCAT or standardized tests like a bar exam for calculus, physics, or computer science. “It would be much more useful, speaking as employer, if they show they’re just at the top of the charts on a certain skill set that we really want,” he said. [Emphasis added]

Khan’s solution resembles Arnold Kling’s A Means A business proposal:

A reliable, independent grading service can earn revenue from educational innovators and from existing institutions. For innovators, the service can provide validation and certification. For existing institutions, it can help with performance management and, in some cases, with efficiency.

Educational innovators face barriers to acceptance. With modern communication technology, it should be possible to come up with alternatives to the traditional classroom and lecture approach to education. However, consumers are reluctant to adopt innovations that have yet to establish credibility. We want innovators to be able to say, “Our instruction methods have been shown to work, as demonstrated by student performance on tests administered by A Means A, the reliable, independent grading service.”

For existing colleges, A Means A could help with performance management. As it stands now, college administrators lack data on how well instructors are performing in the classroom. By obtaining results from exams developed and graded by an independent service, administrators can open a window into what is going on in various classrooms.

For some courses that are large and well standardized across universities, A Means A could offer efficiency based on scale economies. The cost of developing and grading an exam for organic chemistry or intermediate microeconomics could be reduced by having a specialize grading service undertake the effort rather than using the resources of every college that offers such courses.

The ability for A Means A to charge a mark-up over its costs will depend on becoming an industry standard. In the best case scenario, employers will demand to see A Means A grades on transcripts, colleges will use A Means A to determine whether or not to accept credit for transfers, graduate and professional schools will use A Means A in admissions decisions, and consumers will use A Means A results to evaluate alternative educational institutions. Educational researchers will frequently say “According to data from A Means A, …” The higher education market is so large that if a business becomes a standard essential component, the profit opportunity should be rather significant.

If A Means A falls far short of becoming an industry standard, then the costs of providing the service are likely to prove too high relative to the prices that it can charge. [Emphasis added]

And Kling has pointed to the innovative Western Governors University as an institution that made use of the outsourcing of grading, from instructors to dedicated independent evaluators, per an article by Jeffrey R. Young in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The best way to eliminate grade inflation is to take professors out of the grading process: Replace them with professional evaluators who never meet the students, and who don’t worry that students will punish harsh grades with poor reviews. That’s the argument made by leaders of Western Governors University, which has hired 300 adjunct professors who do nothing but grade student work.

“They think like assessors, not professors,” says Diane Johnson, who is in charge of the university’s cadre of graders. “The evaluators have no contact with the students at all. They don’t know them. They don’t know what color they are, what they look like, or where they live. Because of that, there is no temptation to skew results in any way other than to judge the students’ work.”

This doesn’t address the “investment banks rating their own securities” problem Khan identifies, as the evaluators remain under the rubric of WGU, but it does look like progress.

It’s a safe bet that the elite colleges and universities would prove the most resistant to the use of professional evaluators. Graduate students and professors who loathe grading might see an upside in third-party evaluation, yet this practice would risk revealing that undergraduate instruction at most selective schools doesn’t offer much in the way of “value-added,” which could cause a crisis of confidence. 

So naturally I’m all for it. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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