Tag Archives: quality

An Appeal for For-Profit Education

I chair the Governing Board at Grantham University in Kansas City, Missouri, an on-line, for-profit institution. Grantham diverges from Congress’ caricature of for-profits. More than ninety percent of its students have a military background; in fact, most of these students remain in active service as they pursue their degrees. Most are also first generation college enrollers. The average age of the student population is thirty and a disproportionate number are African-American or Hispanic.                                                                               

One might assume – as many in the Congress do – that Grantham is a “matchbook cover” institution offering undemanding programs and disdain for academic integrity, but nothing could be further from the truth. Though standards for admission are not up to the Ivy League’s requirements, the exit requirements are rigorous. Of course, not every student thrives. However, after considering high school grades and SAT scores, students’ success rates defy expectations.         

At last year’s Grantham commencement I observed families crying uncontrollably as their loved ones rose to accept diplomas. This wasn’t like any graduation I experienced in my 35 year academic career. Children, parents and grandparents participated in a poignant scene. For most of those present, their for-profit degree represented a pathway to a promising future.                     

There is yet another good reason to support for-profit education. Non-profit universities tend to ignore sound business practices because demand for their degrees has been inelastic. Therefore, university officials have no concept of efficiency. Having been a professor and dean at a private institution, I can confirm the existence of widespread waste, duplication, and inordinate expense on student entertainment. Higher tuition has not adversely affected student enrollment; hence, the price of college tends to be arbitrary.    

While it is true that for-profit institutions might prioritize profit over quality education, profit isn’t a dirty word when it imposes restraints on non-essential spending. For-profits’ responsibility to stockholders means that lavish, unnecessary expenditures are unacceptable. Accordingly, for-profits don’t offer the amenities that increase student satisfaction but have little impact on student success. Unlike their spendthrift peers in the non-profit world, for-profits have no sports teams, bowling alleys, or student lounges.            

If one were to establish a university de novo one wouldn’t invest in bricks and mortar. It is not coincidental that Governors’ University, organized by the governors of western states, is an on-line program. With the nominal cost of higher education beyond the reach of average income earners and explosion of student debt, on-line education will become an increasingly attractive option for both the consumers and producers of higher education. Even elite private institutions are already offering a full array of online courses.

Stereotypes die hard, so it will undoubtedly take a crisis for meaningful change to occur. With the college tuition bubble about to burst, that crisis is just over the horizon. In short order, the for-profit, on-line institution will look like a reasonable educational alternative for students, parents, and politicians who have thrown vast sums at traditional institutions of higher learning.

A Union’s War on University Quality

The recent story of the City University of New York is a tale of CUNY leadership making a series of bold and positive moves, and having each one blocked or opposed by leadership of the faculty union.

The current PSC leaders opposed the Board of Trustees’ courageous (and at the time, highly controversial) plan to eliminate remediation at CUNY’s eleven senior colleges. They opposed one of Chancellor Matthew Goldstein’s first major initiatives, creation of the Macaulay Honors College, which has brought thousands of Ivy League-caliber students to CUNY. They opposed the CUNY Compact, which stabilized CUNY’s funding sources before the financial meltdown. And the current PSC leaders opposed extending the tenure clock from five to seven years, to provide a better sense of scholarly production before the tenure decision, thereby reducing the number of unqualified figures who receive tenure.

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Is There a College My Son or Daughter Can Trust?

A few days ago, I received two similar letters from parents asking a very common question, if the quality of college education is declining as rapidly as many people say, where do you think my daughter or son should go to school? I sent a note putting this question to Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept and an outstanding blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

This was his reply (published here with permission):       
Dear John,
I get the question from time to time.  My multi-part answer:
1.  Most colleges and universities have a lot of intellectual rot, but usually some good professors and programs.  If you figure out who the professors and what the programs are, and if you have the discipline to stick with them once you are there, you can get a good education at most of the highly ranked research universities and liberal arts colleges.  (This is by no means easy, but it is possible,)
2.  Within that top tier, however, there are definite exceptions: places where it isn’t possible to get a good college education or so difficult it isn’t worth the effort.  Brown and Wesleyan would top my list of DNA (Do Not Apply).
3.  Depending on your ability, your politics, your intellectual seriousness, and the subjects you are interested in, you may have some very good options.  If you are interested in science and the sheer brainpower, try to get into Caltech.  If you love the Great Books, St. John’s in Annapolis or Sante Fe may be right (but don’t mistake St. John’s as “conservative.”)  If you aren’t put off by the idea of physical remoteness and you are ready for a rigorous liberal arts curriculum, Hillsdale could be a good choice.  If you want to study business, try Babson.
4.  Generally, if you are interested in the sciences or engineering, your range of good choices is much broader–at least to the extent that you are willing to write off the liberal arts.  A lot of research universities have rigorous science programs but very weak and very politicized humanities courses.  You won’t learn how to write very well and you will probably emerge with contempt for the humanities, since virtually all you will encounter will be from people who substitute shabby propaganda for thoughtful inquiry.
5.  If financing a college education is going to be a challenge, give serious consideration to attending a two-year community college and then transferring in to the college you want to graduate from.  There are a lot of junk courses in community colleges too.  You have to be careful and deliberate, but the average community college curriculum isn’t that different from a four-year college, except that it has fewer specialized courses that reflect the vanity of the professors.
6.  If you are 17 or 18, it isn’t a bad idea to defer college altogether.  If you go to college now, you will be prone to many kinds of mistakes that you would know how to avoid in a few years.  Lots of college courses are designed as snares for the 18-year-old mind.  They are meant to make you feel smarter and more sophisticated than you are.  That may feel good at the time, but you’ll eventually wise up and realize that you have wasted a lot of time and money.
7. Never go to a college that has weak writing requirements–except perhaps if hard science is all you want to do.  Writing papers for your courses is a chore but it is the single most important part of your education.  Spot-check by asking current students at the college how many papers they wrote in the last semester, and how long they were.  If you get an answer less than five papers, or a total less than 30 pages, you should keep looking.

Can We Measure the Value of College Teaching?

By Robert Martin and Andrew Gillen
AP_professor_lecture_480_1sep10_se.jpgA popular notion within the academy is that teaching quality cannot be measured, but this is an article of faith, not a demonstrated fact. Very few institutions have made a systematic effort to measure teaching quality, largely because the faculty is opposed to it and administrators have little incentive to discover true teaching value added. Faculty view their conduct in the classroom as beyond judgment, while for deans, knowing how serious some teaching problems are is a kind of trap: this obligates them to fix those problems in an environment where very little can be done. Further, if some professors are identified as truly exceptional teachers, their peers may resent it and the exceptional teachers may expect higher compensation in return. So, most administrators choose to leave that sleeping dog alone.
One consequence is that colleges and universities scrupulously avoid competing on the basis of teaching metrics; choosing instead to compete on the basis of things that signal or imply quality, such as scholarly research, elaborate facilities, stately campuses, athletic teams, and extravagant entertainment. This competition accounts for most of the excess cost of college and for the decline in teaching quality.
The central issue here is the quality of undergraduate teaching. Students, parents, and taxpayers are most concerned about that question. In undergraduate education, quality is the amount of new knowledge acquired by a student as a result of taking an individual course or attending a particular college. The new knowledge in each case is the human capital value added by the professor and the institution. The value added includes both discrete new knowledge and the ability to integrate and apply that knowledge. If students, parents, and taxpayers know what to expect in terms of value added, they can make their own subjective valuations of the other services offered by the institution.

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Accreditation: Are the Inmates Running the Asylum?

On paper, accreditation is an amazing system. Among other things, it simultaneously advises colleges on how to improve, enforces a minimum level of quality, provides needed information to policy makers, and protects colleges from government intrusion. It does all this with only a few hundred employees, and a few thousand volunteers. Indeed if accreditation actually accomplished all it claims to, it would be one of the best systems ever devised.

The only problem is that accreditation accomplishes almost none of what it is supposed to. The advice given to colleges is often inappropriate; accreditors refuse to define quality, let alone enforce a minimum level of it; the entire process is shrouded in secrecy, providing almost no information to outsiders; and while still relatively successful in shielding colleges from government intrusion, accreditors have too often used their quasi-governmental power to behave in just as dictatorial a manner. Accreditation needs to be reformed.

Read CCAP’s full report, prepared by Daniel Bennett, Richard Vedder and myself, for a detailed analysis of these problems and our proposed solutions, which would move us toward an outcomes-based quality control certification system.

College for Those Who Can’t Do the Work

Charlotte Allen’s September 23 post here, College for the Intellectually Disabled, has outraged some Down Syndrome activists, one of whom sent us the letter below. The gist of the letter is that the intellectually disabled deserve to be in college, though by definition, they will be unable to do the work. Kindness and a feel-good sense of inclusiveness are at work here, plus a fear of litigation and the feeling that college is becoming just another entitlement that cannot reasonably be withheld, even from those who cannot read or write.

That’s why a few campuses are offering college-like “experiences” to the intellectually disabled, and may one day routinely offer college-like academic degrees, which they fully understand will not really be earned.


To the Editor:

As Board President of The Down Syndrome Guild of Kansas City and the mother of a son with Down syndrome attending a large university, I am appalled at this vitriolic rant against persons with intellectual disabilities. This morning my staff will be directed to assemble the contact information for all of the national organizations representing persons with intellectual disabilities. Please note that I serve as Board Vice President of one of the national Down syndrome organizations…. (These) organizations alone represent 400,000 families organized into 200+ affiliate organizations across the United States. I am suggesting that you take down this article from your site. Once the link is posted on the national forums, there will be a call to action.

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Two Problems with the New Doctoral Rankings

The National Research Council has finally issued its rankings of doctoral programs, with coverage appearing here, here, and here . Right now, everybody is trying to assimilate the results, which are more complicated than those in the 1995 report. The “Data-Based Assessment” runs to 282 pages, the “Guide to the Methodology” 57 pages, and each one contains numerous cautionary notes about the conclusiveness of the findings.
Still, however confusing and tentative the results, they bear tremendous authority and universities will plumb them for good news and trumpet them in years to come. For this reason, any criterion that plays a role in the rankings process has a powerful, long-term impact on post-graduate education and research in the United States. If the NRC used one, the logic goes, then it’s a settled norm, and universities looking to rise in the next version of rankings should consider it well.
It is troubling, then, to find two criteria implemented in the project that are, in truth, dubious measures of the quality of research in at least one area of graduate study, the humanities.

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The Underperformance Problem

On average black students do much worse on the SAT and many other standardized tests than whites. While encouraging progress was made in the 1970s and early 1980s in improving black SAT scores and reducing the black/white test score gap, progress in this direction came to a halt by the early 1990s, and today the gap stands pretty much where it was twenty years ago. Whereas whites and Asians today average a little over 500 on the math and reading portions of the SAT, blacks score only a little over 400 — in statistical metric a gap of a full standard deviation. Only about one in six blacks does as well on the SAT as the average white or Asian.
This state of affairs is well known uncomfortable though it may be to bring up in public. Less well known is what in the scholarly literature is called “the underperformance problem.” Once in college blacks with the same entering SAT scores as whites and Asians earn substantially lower grades over their college careers and wind up with substantially lower class rankings. This gap in grade performance, moreover, is not reduced by adding high school grades or socio-economic status to the criteria for matching students. Blacks equally matched with whites or Asians in terms of their entering scholastic credentials and socio-economic backgrounds simply do not perform as well as their Asian and white counterparts in college. And the degree of underperformance is often very substantial.
This is contrary to what many people have been led to believe. Standardized tests are “culturally biased,” it is said, and do not fairly indicate the abilities or promise of racial minorities growing up outside the dominant white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon culture. Often this claim is bolstered by reciting items on long outdated verbal tests asking for the meaning of words like “regatta” or “cotillion” that only upper-class whites are likely to know. The implication is usually that those from minority cultures will do better in college in terms of grades than their test scores would predict. The “cultural bias” argument, however, is not only questionable on its face — since the clearly non-Anglo Saxon Asians do better than whites on most standardized tests of mathematical abilities including the SAT, while the equally non-Anglo Saxon Ashkenazic Jews outperform everyone else on tests of English verbal ability — but fails to account for the fact that in terms of grade performance blacks in college consistently do worse, not better, than their standardized test scores would predict. Standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT overpredict, not underpredict, how well blacks will do in college, and in this sense the tests are predictively biased in favor of blacks, not against them.

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Not Just Another College Ranking

Forbes has issued its 3rd annual College Rankings, delivering its crown to Williams College. Comparison to the U.S. News and World Report list is inevitable so let’s not delay in getting to it; this result, and most of the top 20 rankings on the Forbes list aren’t that dissimilar from the similar U.S. News list (when accounting for the fact that Forbes elides the distinction between the “liberal arts college” and “university” categories). This is unsurprising; a number of the factors in their ranking formula are not much dissimilar from the US News and World Report list; student debt, loan default rates, four-year degree completion rates, and the like. Any sensible list would feature these factors, and it’s a testament to the objective value of certain colleges that they place highly on multiple lists.

The Forbes list is distinctive, however, for its focus on results; its “ends-oriented” ranking, despite its similarities with U.S. News at the top of the scale, seems worlds different once venturing lower in the listing. On this list Whitman College in Washington and Centre College in Kentucky outrank Dartmouth; Colgate University stands many spots above Brown. It is a different measure with clearly different results.

Forbes‘ initial formula two years ago proved the results-focused ranking simpler said than done; in granting a quarter of its weight respectively to an enrollment adjusted appearance of graduates in “Who’s Who in America” and to aggregated RateMyProfessor rankings, Forbes deserved the numerous accusations of rankings ham-handedness it received. Happily, their worthy goal has acquired a more substantial statistical foundation in this iteration.

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A War on the Quality of Higher Education

Few higher education groups have as pernicious an agenda as the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). The diversity-obsessed organization combines an unrelenting campaign against quality—especially at schools whose student bodies are more middle- or working-class—with an Orwellian tendency to use words to describe their opposite.
Beyond this pattern, AAC&U initiatives tend to have several common themes:

– a refusal to describe the United States as a “democracy”—“diverse democracy” or “multicultural democracy” are the preferred terms;
– a call for “global” learning, which amounts to demands not for ensuring that students have foreign language capabilities or extensive knowledge of foreign cultures but instead a code word for reorienting college curricula around the apparently global principles of race, class, and gender;
-a relentless emphasis on “skills” over course content
– a hostility to disciplinary learning, and equally robust praise for interdisciplinary studies.

The latter two items might seem banal, but for the AAC&U they’re critical: a public emphasis on skills means that course content can be molded to fit any agenda (in the AAC&U’s case, one-sided, present-oriented agenda), as long as the course theoretically teaches the desired skills. Abandoning disciplines, meanwhile, removes a potential obstacle to course content that amounts to little more than propaganda, on the grounds that such content can be deemed “interdisciplinary” and critical for a “21st century”education.

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Stripping Standards in Arkansas

The long-term decline of graduation rates is one of the most intractable problems facing American Higher Education. Trustees at the University of Arkansas are now mulling what appears to be the most popular solution to the problem – simply lower requirements. Under a current proposal, a requirement for 66 core credits would be reduced nearly by half, to 35. Anne Neal, President of ACTA, furnished additional grim details in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial last week:

Under the proposed curricular overhaul, the foreign language requirement would be altogether eliminated. The math requirements would be halved. And the science requirement—a must in the 21st century if there ever were one—would remain, but in a thinned out version.

The University of Arkansas’ chancellor, G. David Gearheart, wrote in response to Neal’s column in the Democrat-Gazette that “..the truth of the matter is that we have not had a core curriculum review in over 50 years.” He pointed out, depressingly, that “the current core of 66 credits in the university’s J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences is much higher than many of our peer institutions…” Arkansas is indeed behind the times – it has been comparatively slow to eviscerate core curricula that most colleges destroyed long ago. The case is understandably distressing to ACTA as the University of Arkansas was one of only eight universities to receive an “A” grade on ACTA’s “What Will They Learn” survey of core curriculum requirements (Columbia earned a “B”, Georgetown a “D”, and Stanford a “C” to give you some measure of comparison.”
Some in the University have argued that these changes are necessary in order to comply with a recent act of the Arkansas State Legislature designed to ease the transfer of students from two-year to four-year institutions. Arkansas Community colleges could accurately be described as failing, with a graduation rate of 17%, but ACTA and others have averred that other changes could easily have smoothed the way for transfer students. As Paul Greenberg wrote:

If this law amounts to dumbing down education, and it does, then change the law. Or get around it by establishing new requirements for graduation. Surely it is not beyond the ingenuity of our academicians to see that all our college graduates get something like a liberal education rather than a watered-down simulacrum thereof.
Imagine if the same university administrators and public bureaucrats who are proving so talented at rationalizing the degradation of academic standards applied their gift for working the system to raising those standards, or just maintaining them. Or would that be out of character?
Why should not all students, whether in physics or phys ed, be required to have much the same core curriculum, or liberal education? They’re all going to be citizens and voters, aren’t they? Lest we forget, the term liberal education derives from the concept of an education suitable for the free-those who enjoy liberty. Rather than being enslaved by their own ignorance.

It remains to be seen if Arkansas will be the latest curriculum to fall victim to Higher Education’s increasing consensus that a well-rounded mind is merely a roadblock on the road to a cap and gown.

The University Of Chicago – What’s Been Lost


The University of Chicago met widespread national opposition ten years ago after it instituted a new, less demanding core curriculum to make way for more electives. It was part of a plan to make the curriculum significantly less demanding (more “fun”) to attract more students and improve the school’s bottom line. Instead of 21 required courses (in the quarter system), there became 15: six in the sciences, three in the social sciences, and six divided among the humanities and civilization studies. The changes were bitterly opposed when they became public, but too late. Over the past ten years, the university’s curriculum has slouched farther toward mediocrity.

After 1999, a student could forgo the modern era in the humanities as well as one third of the education in a civilization that used to be required for a bachelor’s degree worthy of Chicago’s name. While students need not avoid such courses, they may, and many do. In the first year of the new curriculum, only about 20 percent of students chose not to complete the third quarter of their humanities sequences, and it was argued that most Chicago students could be trusted to take their education into their own hands. The situation today is not so rosy.

In 2007-2008, for instance, nearly 47 percent of students chose to abandon their humanities core sequence to study something else. Maybe they were leaving room for more electives or were making hard choices as they tried to fit the core into study abroad and early graduation. But the fact is that half of Chicago’s undergraduates now choose to forgo a year-long sequence, which at its best weaves multiple common themes through various changes across the centuries, in favor of a piecemeal education. Some of the humanities sequences have shrunk on the presumption that they can only maintain about 22 weeks’ worth of undergraduate attention. Why keep up an integrated three-quarter sequence if students treat the third quarter as an elective?

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Princeton’s Victory Over Grade Inflation

princeton_university_fort.jpgGrade inflation is one of those realities of the post-60s academic world that most college teachers bemoan but feel powerless to do anything about. It is virtually impossible for any single faculty member to do much to stem the tide of ever rising grade distributions. If a faculty member refuses to go along with the upward shift in grades and gives his students lower grades than they would have received for comparable work in other courses, students will rightfully complain that to those reading their official transcript it will falsely appear as if they have done lesser work or achieved at a lower level in the hold-out grader’s course than in other courses. Such faculty members will find many fewer students taking their courses — including many conscientious and competitive students whom the teacher does not want to scare away. Worse still, since tenure and promotion decisions are often partially based on student evaluations and student enrollments that frequently reflect past satisfaction with a professor’s grading policy, university teachers today pay a heavy price for bucking the inflationary trend.
Perhaps the best that a lone academic can do is represented by Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield. Mansfield can remember a time when the average GPA at Harvard College was around 2.5 on a 4.0 scale — today it is about 3.5. The transition from C+ to B+ as the average grade has produced the ludicrous result that in some years nine in ten Harvard seniors graduated with official honors. For Mansfield the idea that grades should mean what grading keys still often say they mean — i.e., that an A means “Excellent,” “Truly Outstanding,” a B “Very Good,” “Above Average,” and a C “Average” — carries a good deal of weight. But implementing such a grading policy is impossible in a grading environment in which C grades have practically disappeared from most humanities and social science courses (representing less than 5 percent of the grades in some departments), and more than half of students in many Harvard courses receive A range grades. Mansfield came up with a creative solution that enabled him to avoid what would have been a bitter and ultimately futile struggle against the inflationary flood waters of the times without having to sing praises to the river gods. Mansfield has for many years now given his students two sets of grades, one for the official Harvard transcript, the other representing what the students really deserve on a non-inflated grading scale.
Does It Really Exist?
Some deny that grade inflation exists. According to these people — usually students or their parents — students are simply getting smarter these days, especially at the most prestigious colleges and universities which draw from a huge talent pool. The higher grades obtained at such places reflect genuinely higher achievement, these people say, just as the superior performance in track and field events at the Olympics represent genuine advances over earlier competitors, not changes in the evaluation metric.
But no college teacher with hands-on experience of the rising grades at the better colleges over the past several decades can take such claims seriously. Term papers of a quality that would have received a B or B+ in former times are now routinely given an A-, and with the near elimination of C range grades in many humanities and social science courses (except for failing or near-failing work), the B and B- grades have come to absorb everything that previously would have been awarded a C or even a D. To anyone with knowledge of an earlier period, it is clear that there has been both protracted grade inflation (higher grades overall for work no better than in an earlier period), and grade compression (almost all grades compressed into the A+ to B- range).

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A Report From Nowhere

A group called Strong American Schools has just issued a report with the provocative title Diploma to Nowhere. The report is a lavishly produced cry of alarm: our high schools are failing. Millions of graduates are tricked into thinking their high school diplomas mean they are “ready for college academics.” But they aren’t. As a result, 1.3 million students end up in college remedial programs that cost between $2.31 to $2.89 billion per year.

That’s alarming all right, but who is “Strong American Schools”? The organization’s website declares that it is “a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, [and] a nonpartisan campaign supported by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation promoting sound education policies for all Americans.” But the history of the organization and why it was founded are more elusive. The Gates Foundation issued a press release on April 2007 that throws a little more light on the genesis of Strong American Schools. The organization was apparently founded at that point with $60 million and the goal of injecting a particular version of school reform into the 2008 Presidential election. Strong American Schools’ original project was “ED in ’08” described as “a sweeping public awareness and action campaign that will mobilize the public and presidential candidates around solutions for the country’s education crisis.”

Of course a lot depends on what you think the crisis is. Is it our dependence on a teaching corps that in most states has been through the highly ideological training of schools of education and who bring their confused pedagogy to class? Is it our consumerist culture awash in short-term gratifications against which the schools can barely compete? Is it what Charles Murray calls “educational romanticism” that insists that every child can be “above average” and go to college if provided with the right kind of teaching? Is it perhaps an educational system that is dominated by teachers unions more concerned with their prerogatives than with educating students? Could it be the deterioration of academic standards which the No Child Left Behind initiative singled out as the key factor?

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