Accountability Plan for Higher Education Would Be a Mistake, Report Says
The Bush administration’s plan for imposing accountability measures — similar to those in the No Child Left Behind Act — on higher education is wrongheaded, according to a new report by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
Lawrence N. Gold, the AFT’s higher education director, said the report is not a response to any particular piece of legislation, but to the Bush administration having mentioned an interest in holding colleges and universities accountable for their graduation rates.
“I thought it was particularly pernicious,” Gold said.
While the Bush administration hasn’t formally released an accountability proposal, Gold said he has heard administration officials talk about higher education reforms in terms of No Child Left Behind.
The report, “Student Persistence in College: More Than Counting Caps and Gowns,” says the Bush plan would be based on information collected under the Student Right to Know Act, which shows many schools having low graduation rates. The administration’s solution, the report says, would be to reward schools with high graduation rates and penalize those with lower rates, particularly by cutting funds.
“Proponents of this argument contend that it mirrors the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which rewards or punishes PK-12 schools based on the performance of their students,” the report says.
But the report suggests that the argument is flawed for several reasons — particularly because calculating graduation rates is such tricky business. Graduation rates calculated under the SRK Act don’t account for part-time students, transfer students, or those taking courses in non-degree granting programs.
“The SRK measure also fails to take into account the fact that students increasingly tend not to stay in the same place, doing the same thing, throughout their education,” the report says.
For example, one-third of the students who launch their careers at a particular community college transfer to another two-year school before they graduate, but the SRK numbers count these students as dropouts at the first college instead of graduates at the second institution.
And, the report points out, “Community colleges face the biggest problem calculating graduation rates because they have so many missions. They provide terminal vocational degrees, academic transfer degrees, and also offer many students the opportunity to take a number of classes to gain a specific skill. This leads to some unwarranted results.”
The report goes on to say that imposing something like NCLB, which emphasizes testing based on uniform standards, won’t work in higher education, where the standards, curricula and students are all very different. Rewarding or punishing schools for their graduation rates could cause institutions to drop students who have trouble persisting or to lower their academic standards so more students graduate.
Instead, the report suggests, the government should use information about graduation rates from the National Center for Education Statistics’ longitudinal survey. The report contends that this is a “much better source of information” because it charts students’ progress based on whether they graduate or stay enrolled.
Rather than penalizing institutions for low graduation rates, the report says, local, state and federal lawmakers should look at ways to help improve persistence — particularly among nontraditional students, who tend to struggle the most. Helping students financially and academically are good places to start, boosting funds for Pell Grants and TRIO programs. Congress also should create a program that fosters high-school-college partnerships, which would make sure high-school students are getting the preparation they need for college, according to the report.
But Stephanie Babyak, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said, “Contrary to the recent assertion by the American Federation of Teachers, the Education Department has not proposed any plan or program … that would penalize institutions of postsecondary education for failing to graduate a specified number or percentage of their students within a specified period of time.”
When the administration’s formal proposal is released, it’s expected to be part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
But Gold said it’s anybody’s guess as to what the administration might do.
“It’s awfully difficult to tell … the Republicans are being so closed, they’re not talking to Democrats or to lobbyists,” Gold said. He said current HEA negotiations have been the most difficult to gauge of any he has seen.
Most of the problems, Gold said, are stemming from what he thinks is the administration’s failure to think carefully about what higher education is all about and why it needs to be treated differently. He said it needs to be made clear that just because higher education is treated differently doesn’t mean it is not being held accountable.
— Kristina Lane
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