On March 14, Washington Post reporter Daniel de Vise, in his piece “Trying to assess learning gives colleges their own test anxiety,” reported that the University of Texas at Austin ranks very low in achievement of student learning. “For learning gains from freshman to senior year,” writes de Vise, “UT ranked in the 23rd percentile among like institutions. In other words, 77 percent of universities with similar students performed better.” The Post obtained this data through a public records request. The standardized test was conducted by the Collegiate Learning Assessment.
Prof. Richard Arum, a New York University sociologist, “reviewed UT’s results at the request of the Post.” He found that “seniors have spent four years there, and the scores [on student learning] have not gone up that much.”
There is a supreme irony in all this: Two forces that were created last year during the higher ed debate in Texas emphasized the term “excellence” in their titles–UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s “Framework for Advancing Excellence throughout The University of Texas System: Action Plan” and public relations firm Burson Marsteller’s “Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.” Why, then, would the Washington Post have to issue a public records request to discover excellence in student learning? Wouldn’t UT and Burson Marsteller shout learning excellence to the heavens?
There is in Chancellor Cigarroa’s Framework for Advancing Excellence an unbelievable absence of effort that should disturb everyone: not a single word is cited about student-learning outcomes. Educating students is the principle purpose of higher education. Excellence would demand that achievement in learning be known and made public to students, parents, and taxpayers.
The time has come to re-prioritize taxpayer subsidies. A study released last October by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) entitled “Cheap for Whom?” finds a huge disparity between rich and poorer schools, with the rich ones getting a far wider slice of pie. The study observes, “Among not-for-profit institutions, the amount of taxpayer subsidies hovers between $1,000 and $2,000 per student per year until we turn to the most selective institutions. . . . Among these already well-endowed institutions, the taxpayer subsidy jumps substantially to more than $13,000 per student per year.”
This AEI study adds, “If the country is to retain its competitive edge, it must reverse the current policies that result in providing the lowest levels of taxpayer support to the institutions that enroll the highest percentage of low-income, nontraditional, and minority students–the fastest-growing segments of the population.”
What’s more, if an elite school doesn’t make student-learning outcomes a part of a plan “advancing excellence,” why would it deserve a vastly wider slice of pie? Its taxpayer subsidies should be distributed more equitably among other schools working in the vineyards.
The study How College Affects Students reviewed three decades of research on higher ed, finding that expensive elite schools are not necessarily educationally better than relatively inexpensive schools and that “students and their parents are making college selections, and state and federal legislators are making public policy decisions, based on a flawed conception of educational quality that prompts misleading comparisons. As a result, decisions with high price tags for both individuals and the public treasury are based on a demonstrably invalid set of variables for describing a college’s impact on learning outcomes.”
With a 23rd percentile ranking in student learning, with no inclusion of student learning outcomes in the Chancellor’s action plan for excellence, and with a disproportionally larger share of the subsidized pie going to UT, the pie should be re-cut to help some low-income, non-traditional, and minority students.
Ronald L. Trowbridge is a senior fellow at the Center for College Affordability.