Beware of Bureaucrats Bearing Gifts
Raymund Paredes, the überbureaucrat heading the Texas Higher Ed Coordinating Board (THECB), has proposed that the state legislature hold state universities accountable. When a bureaucrat asks us to hold him "accountable" in certain ways, we can count on the fact that he and his cronies have figured out how to game the offered accountability mechanism. That’s certainly the case with the latest "accountability" proposal from the higher ed establishment. What is it that we are supposed to hold the universities accountable for? Answer: raising the graduation rates. Who decides whether a student has earned the right to graduate? The very institutions to be held accountable for his graduation. As Homer Simpson would put it, DOH!
The Coordinating Board and the Texas Association of Business (TAB) assume that the whole point of going to college is to graduate. Silly me, I thought the point had something to do with learning. According to the Coordinating Board’s calculations, if a student spends three and one-half years at university and earns 119 credits but doesn’t graduate, all of that education was completely wasted. In contrast, if he earns one additional credit and receives the diploma, then every dime spent on or by him for his education was a dime well spent. The THECB and the TAB think that college diplomas are some sort of magical talisman that works its magic on students in complete independence of things like classes, labs, and assignments. Surely, if our colleges are doing their job, a student who spends three years in one is far better off than a student who never crosses the classroom threshold, regardless of whether the student earns the diploma.
What is a bachelor’s degree? It is an entirely arbitrary boundary. Does it take exactly four years to become a competent engineer? And, by sheer coincidence, we’re supposed to believe that it takes exactly four years to be a competent art historian, economist, pharmacist and accountant? Exactly four years is what’s required, no matter what the field? Perhaps in some cases and for some students, four years is better than three, but for many other students, two or three years may be plenty. When a student "drops out" of college, he or she may do so for perfectly good reasons. In many cases, the courses and requirements that remain to be completed for the B.A. are just not worth the additional time and cost.
Why have Paredes and his allies, the university administrators, proposed this form of accountability? Because they know that they can raise the graduation rates without disturbing the status quo in the slightest. They don’t need to make professors work harder. All they have to do is encourage them to drop academic standards still further. If every student earns an A in every course, it’s pretty easy to get to a 100% graduation rate. Especially if the administrators bribe the students to stay with better food, bigger dorm rooms, fancier swimming pools and rec facilities, and more exciting athletics programs. Our colleges are turning into little Club Meds for twenty-somethings, with education as an optional extra, all supplied by the taxpayers, who naively believe that the universities care about teaching.
We must hold state universities accountable, but not for something as intrinsically meaningless as graduation rates. Instead, let’s measure what students learn by means of third-party assessments, like the GRE Subject exams. And let’s study carefully what value, if any, is added by higher education through longitudinal studies of state college graduates, controlling for things like TAKS and SAT scores. Does college education improve the graduates’ lifetime earnings? Their happiness? Their civic involvement? If so, which colleges and which subjects?