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Scrutiny of U.S. Higher Education Increasing, College Forum Panelists Say

WASHINGTON — As the Obama Administration continues its push to make the United States the most-college educated nation in the world by 2020, institutions of higher learning should expect increased media and governmental scrutiny around issues of quality and accountability.

That was one of the take-home points from “Getting to Graduation” — a two-panel discussion forum held Tuesday in Washington that featured leaders in government, K-12 and postsecondary education, and media outlets that specialize in covering education.

The event — hosted by Washington Monthly magazine and Education Sector, a Washington-based education think tank — came on the heels of a package of stories in which the magazine and Education Sector labeled certain lackluster colleges as “dropout factories” — a term originally coined to describe high schools with markedly low graduation rates. The term, however, could gain increased usage in higher education in the future as U.S. education officials scrutinize more closely college-degree attainment rates.

The package also included the magazine’s annual college rankings guide, which routinely draws criticism from some quarters of higher education. Tuesday’s panel discussions were no different in that regard.

“They try to reduce multiple dimensions of colleges and universities into a single quantitative index,” said panelist Eduardo Ochoa, the assistant U.S. secretary for postsecondary education.

Ochoa said many choices implicit in any ranking methodology are “discretionary” and “questionable.”

“Generally speaking,” Ochoa said, “rankings have to be taken with a grain of salt.”

Panelist Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, defended the college rankings as a “very well-developed multidimensional set of measures that (Education Sector uses) to arrive at judgments of institutional quality.”

“They give us a good sense of the academic profile of the student body, research funding, the physical plant, credentials, honorifics (and) publication records of faculty,” Carey said. “And we can break those things down by department. So you can look at a college or university and see if it has well-prepared students, if it’s well sourced, if it’s academically strong.

“You can make a case that if a university has all of those things, it’s a good institution,” Carey said.

Media metrics aside, Tuesday’s discussion dealt largely with education reform at the K-12 level, and the need to take a specialized approach toward America’s dropout problem. But a large part of the discussion dealt with the merits of the Department of Education using a controversial set of proposed “gainful employment” measures it developed to determine if enough graduates of for-profit colleges are finding jobs to justify continued use of federal student aid at for-profit institutions.

Referring to calls for increased information about outcomes for students, panelist Stephen Lehmkuhle, chancellor of the University of Minnesota–Rochester, said, “I certainly think it’s something that should be welcomed.”

“As educators, we’re being asked to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist,” Lehmkuhle said, citing data that showed certain jobs in 2010 “were not even known about in 2004.” He said the situation calls for the kind of approach espoused in an ice hockey saying that advises players to skate to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.

“We’re in this dilemma of trying to prepare students for this unknown future,” Lehmkuhle said. “We have to think more deeply about how do we prepare them to navigate and adapt to this changing world and changing environment.”

Carey saw the value of the “gainful employment” metrics designed for for-profit colleges as better enabling people to assess institutional quality.

“For the first time, there will be information about what happens to students after they leave and essentially a formula in place where there is a judgment implied about whether that outcome was good enough, given what students have paid for it,” Carey said. “That’s what’s missing from many ranking systems, is a sense of value.”

However, Ochoa said, statutorily, the Department of Education’s interest in the gainful employment measures is based on consumer protection and good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

The Career College Association, which represents the for-profit college sector, has criticized the proposed rule, saying it could push 2.3 million students out of higher education by forcing programs to close or putting others on “restricted” status. The number of potentially affected students, CCA says, includes 790,000 fewer females, 210,000 fewer African-Americans and 190,000 fewer Hispanics.

Panel moderator Doug Lederman, editor of InsideHigherEd.com, said gainful employment measures are likely to permeate all of higher education in the near future. He said it’s wrongheaded for traditional higher education to think that rules and concepts like the gainful employment rule won’t be applied to the sector as a whole.

“I think there is a lot of scrutiny likely to be coming toward higher education’s way,” Lederman said.

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