After three busy months of conferences and travel that left little time for blogging, I'll catch up by offering this lengthy post recalling a few recent references and resources that confirm the growing external and internal attention to institutional performance in higher education.
On 09/26/2006 the U.S. Department of Education published its Action Plan for Higher Education: Improving Accessibility, Affordability, and Accountability, which is prefaced by a quote from Secretary Margaret Spellings: "Over the years, we’ve invested tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money and just hoped for the best. We deserve better.” The action plan, of course, derives from the recommendations of Secretary Spellings' Commission on the future of Higher Education and its final report, A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education (September 2006).
Secretary Spellings was subsequently interviewed on National Public Radio: on 09/26/2006 by Michele Norris and Melissa Block on All Things Considered and on 10/02/2006 by Michelle Martin on Talk of the Nation. In these interviews, Spellings highlighted some of her major concerns, all of which will require the wise use of technology to redress systemically. (That the "wise use of technology" is required is my claim, not hers, a claim that has been substantiated elsewhere in this blog through other sources and directly by me.) In the Martin interview, Spellings explicitly cited the need to increase the productivity of higher education, a need which is at the heart of the necessity to apply technology to redesign (disruptively) academic, financial, and student service processes to improve their measurable effectiveness, convenience, and per-student cost basis -- improved productivity and service flexibility.
On 11/14/2006 shortly after the mid-term election, the USA Today headlined the debate over Spellings' call for increased "transparency" (in Should government take a yardstick to colleges? by Mary Beth Marklein). The article describes Spellings' reaction to higher education leadership responses to the Commission's report as a "give-us-more-money-and-leave-us-alone" strategy. Marklein reported one higher education leader to believe that the "secretary does not seem to appreciate the extent to which colleges are already voluntarily looking at how to measure their effectiveness," and that there is no need for a "federal one-size-fits-all solution."
In the same issue of USA Today, Marklein also wrote College gets lowdown on how students do to highlight how Earlham College is using the National Survey of Student Engagement to provide indirect evidence of student learning and the Collegiate Learning Assessment to measure more directly the learning value added by the College. Marklein's two articles, when synthesized, suggest that higher education leaders understand the need for learning accountability, are not practicing it as diligently and urgently as policy makers would like, and most certainly do not want government to regulate it. Nor do I want government to regulate learning outcomes, but we can do better in improving and measuring learning outcomes in several areas of the curriculum -- redesigning for improved learning and reduced per enrollment costs the 20-30 high-enrollment courses taught in common at almost institutions, requiring the Collegiate Learning Assessment or similar assessment of basic fluencies and critical thinking, increased reporting of aggregate scores on professional board exams in law, medicine, engineering, etc.
On October 31, I participated in the first meeting of the Tenth Anniversary Commission of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). We will meet two more times before offering advice to CHEA about the future of accreditation. The first meeting was to focus on accountability, and, from my perspective, it broadened the agenda by discussing not only how to account for performance in higher education, but also how to improve performance.
At no recent conference I attended has the need to improve and account for performance been more front and center than in November's annual AASCU meeting. Chancellor William Kirwan's call to reduce per-student-FTE costs was notable, as was the update provided by Charles Miller, Chair of Secretary Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Miller applauded the draft Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA) developed by NASULGC in consultation with AASCU, and went on to brief the AASCU audience on the Commission's work. I chatted with Mr. Miller at the airport and asked about how the Commission viewed the role of IT in its recommendations to higher education. He spoke knowingly of how IT can be used to account for learning and other performance mission obligations -- the data gathering and reporting functions that are highly dependent today on technology. Alas, the call to board our planes came before I had a chance to ask him about the role of IT-enabled strategies for improving performance -- in addition to reporting it.
When the USA Today was dropped at my door on January 12, the cover story shouted Rising costs make climb to higher education steeper (by Sandra Block). The "costs" in the title refer, of course, to price (tuition), and the article is yet another national article on how spiraling tuition increases are making it more difficult, if not impossible, for not-so-affluent students to go to college. Indeed, according to the College Board, even after adjusting for inflation, tuition at four-year public institution has increased on the average by about 6% annually over the past five years for a total increase of 35% -- a fact reported in more detail in an earlier post to this blog.
The new Congress has vowed to address the tuition issue, and, indeed, this morning's USA Today (January 17, 2007) reported that House OKs bill that cuts student loan interest rates (by Jim Kuhnhenn of the Associated Press). This kind of legislation will make only a negligible dent in the affordability of access, but it does signal the intent of federal policy makers to continue to focus on the price of access to college.