Monday, January 24, 2011

Recent News about Higher Education that Caught My Eye

Three themes unite news that I've recently read about higher education.

The first is for-profit colleges and universities.  They've been in the news because the U.S.   The U.S. Department of Education placed restrictions on the programs for which it will underwrite student loans.   The qualifying criteria are the percentage of graduates who are able to pay down the principal on their student loans and the ability of those students to get jobs that will allow them to pay off the student loans.  The majority of graduates who have difficulty repaying their student loans come from programs that do not meet these criteriap--and the majority of the schools offering those programs are for-profit colleges and universities.

Some successful American attorneys who recently asked me about my opinions on the situation, felt that the regulations limit student choice, ultimately amounting to government control of educational choice.
I didn't respond that the government controls choice by which programs it funds and whicih ones it doesn't (an issue for all Canadian universities, and many public universities in the U.S.).

More significantly, why should the government underwrite loans students won't be able to afford? The attorneys with whom I was speaking said that the conditions leading to the mortgage crisis of 2008 had already established a precedent and implied that was OK.

But is it OK?  Most students only make the choice about attending college once, maybe twice.  Most are not as fully informed in making this decision as might be preferred.  So it's not surprising that stories frequently appear in the news that report on recruiting practices by for-profit colleges that target particularly vulnerable populations or steer applicants to programs  that are not likely to lead to success (such as telling convicted felons that they have futures in criminology and education, where the majority of jobs require a clean record).

If the promise is that higher education in a professional discipline is going to lead to gainful employment and taking out a student loan is great investment in one's own future, shouldn't some checks exist in the system to make sure that colleges can actually meet these claims?

To learn more about the new regulations on student loans that affect for-profit colleges and universities, check out the New York Times article, Rifts Show at Hearing on For-Profit Colleges by Tamar Lewin, at

To learn about the types of practices that led to these types of regulations, check out Profits and Scrutiny for Colleges Courting Veterans by Eric Lipton at

And to find out what's at stake, consider John Philpott's argument that the number of graduates might exceed actual needs, at  Philpott is not alone in arguing that higher education should not be the automatic choice for students; it's a question that Anya Kamenetz frequently raises in her book DIY U.

The second theme is the assessment of the performance of university professors.  Simon Head's  The Grim Threat to British Universities, from the January 13, 2011 New York Review of Books, (, is ostensibly a review of  the 2006-2011 strategic plan of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the books, The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers by Jack Schuster and Martin Finkelstein and Academic Capitalism and the New Economy by Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades.

Head explores the impact of the introduction of performance metrics into the higher education system of the UK and their origin in American consulting firms.  Head warns that such a system could eventually find its way to other higher education systems, including the U.S.

Head objects to such systems, commenting that
The British universities, Oxford and Cambridge included, are under siege from a system of state control that is undermining the one thing upon which their worldwide reputation depends: the caliber of their scholarship. The theories and practices that are driving this assault are mostly American in origin, conceived in American business schools and management consulting firms. They are frequently embedded in intensive management systems that make use of information technology (IT) marketed by corporations such as IBM, Oracle, and SAP. They are then sold to clients such as the UK government and its bureaucracies, including the universities. This alliance between the public and private sector has become a threat to academic freedom in the UK, and a warning to the American academy about how its own freedoms can be threatened.

The theme is a timely one as my own employer considers instituing its own system of performance metrics.  On the one hand, no system of metrics is flawless.  On the other hand, systems that track activity and results often provides useful insights into effectiveness and impact.

Consider this example.  

Suppose I weigh myself with all of my clothes on, with keys and a lot of change in my pockets and my heaviest boots on.  My weight will admittedly be higher than it might be if I stepped on the scales without clothes.  But if I had gained more than 5 pounds, I'd still have a hard time arguing that I had gained weight.

By the same token, suppose I had published just one peer reviewed article in the past 2 years, had not generated any research funding, had not participated in any committees, and had lousy teaching evaluations.  I could probably quibble with the numbers but the reality remains the same: my performance would be something short of what's expected for a university professor.

Over the years, I've observed as many organizations have introduced evaluation systems. Some organizations introduce evaluation systems with great fanfare then ignore them.  Other organizations introduce evaluation systems with promises that poor performance won't be used against the people and organizations evaluated, then go and use poor performance against them anyway.  And in a few situations, organizations use evaluation as a tool for continuous improvement.

Fearing that the evaluation systems will be used against them, some advocate actively resisting the evaluation process.  It's an understandable fear; indeed, many people have lived it.

But if the same people aspire to greater things, then they must embrace the  evaluation process all the same, because it's the only means of finding out if the individual or organization is actually making progress against these greater goals.  Flawed or not, the evaluation can help people figure out what's working and what isn't working, so they can effectively focus their efforts at improvement.

The last theme in articles that have recently caught my eyes is learning (a surprising topic for higher education, I know).

  • As the behaviorist - constructivist battles continue to rage, comes a piece of evidence that will probably boost the behaviorist camp.  In a controlled experiment, published in the journal Science,  students who studied for a recall test (the behaviorist model) were able to retain more information from the same message that students who used concept maps (a constructivist learning tool), studied repeatedly, or were assigned to a control group.  Check out the abstract of the original article at  and reaction in a New York Times article at l. 
  • As evidence continues to mount about grade inflation, some universities are trying to address the problem.  In A Quest to Explain What Grades Really Mean, New York Times reporter Tamar Lewin describes some of the many attempts by universities in the U.S.  Some have instituted targets for the percentages of As and Bs that professors can assign,  Others won't do that, but will try to put grades in context for those who review transcripts, providing information such as the average; a high grade could lose some of its lustre if the reviewer learns that an A was the average grade in the class.  (Of course, that assumes that people reading the transcripts are really reading them closely.)  See the entire article at

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