Monthly Archives: June 2011

The organized interests circling higher education

The Texas Tribune has a story (“Groups Positioning For Prolonged Higher Ed Debate“) that describes the latest additions to collection of political groups trying to shape higher education in the state. Increasing the number of groups in the debate may turn out to be good. However, universities need to worry whenever political groups get involved in scoring partisan points.

The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education

A new group, the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, has formed to help organize the opposition coming from the Perry administration.

The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education was necessitated by the strong belief that there is a right way to improve higher education and that there is a wrong way that could have long-term damaging effects on our institutions of higher learning, our state’s economy and on our future. Current recommendations being floated – from dramatically expanding enrollment while slashing tuition to separating research and teaching budgets, and seceding from a recognized and respected accreditation organization – are decidedly the wrong way. We believe our public university presidents and chancellors have earned our support with their ongoing commitment to a culture of excellence and continual innovation, while also working to cut operating costs and institute reforms. We also believe it is critical to regularly and openly evaluate the performance of our universities, and do so in a public and transparent way.

You can find additional information about the all-star lineup behind the group and the issues involved in the Texas Tribune’s story on the launch of the group.

Clearly, the targets here include the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” that were launched a couple of years ago. The strategy of the Perry administration seemed to be to try to implement these reforms as quietly as possible through some of his regent appointees. Forcing the debate out into the open will make these proposed “reforms” much harder.

The view from the front of the room

Occasionally, Garry Trudeau captures the life of the North American college professor in Doonesbury. In case you missed it, the January 23, 2011 strip captures the challenge of teaching “multi-tasking” students.


Outcome-based funding

The Texas Tribune has a good story (“Switch to Outcomes-Based Higher Ed Funding Taking Time“) looking at the status of “outcome based” funding for the state’s universities. This comes from frustration that legislators have about students not graduating. They have already capped degree plans at 120 hours. Now they are looking for more ways to get more students through the existing system.

Outcome-based funding would involving making part of a university’s funding based on formulas including the success of students rather than simple enrollment.

Reasons we do not need it:

  • Universities are already working to increase retention of students because every freshman that succeeds become a sophomore who pays tuition.
  • Faculty have always cared about student success.

Reasons why it is bad:

  • There are too many measures of success to implement this without complicating higher education financning more and creating unintended consequences.
  • It further erodes the obligation of the students to meet the standards. The “student as customer” model already places pressure on faculty at some to pass students.

The state needs to balance encouraging student success with creating incentives for hard work and maintaining the standards that make a college degree worth working for. The question here is whether that will be decided by officials in Washington or Austin or by the faculty in the classroom.

The perils of bad research and reform

In an opinion piece (“University of Texas faculty workloads vary widely“)  in the Austin-American Statesman, Richard Vedder demonstrates the state or irony in the higher education debate in Texas: using questionable research to question the value of research.

If these reformers actually believed that higher teaching loads, lower salary, and less research was the model for higher education in Texas, they would be praising the lesser-known schools and urging the state to invest more in them. The kind of institutions that they long for are here. The obsession with UT and A&M is clear evidence “reformers” having more interesting in scoring political points than addressing higher education as it is actually practiced in Texas.

Now, what about Vedder’s analysis?

Vedder tosses out too many casual claims to address all of them here. Let me hit some high (low) points.

Faculty workload

One of the most remarkable claims begins with this bit of methodological under achievement: “On a recent 10 a.m. Tuesday stroll past 24 offices in my department, I found three occupied.”

It’s easier to understand Vedder’s claim to an impressive research record once you’ve seen his research methods. Storytelling is not research. That being said, we need to move beyond the way Vedder made his claim to the validity of the issue overall.

The real question is, are students getting less attention than they want?

Vedder may trip up his own argument : “The National Survey of Student Engagement data for UT-Austin suggest only 38 percent of students feel the faculty are ‘available, helpful and sympathetic’; students at UT-Austin rate their relationships with faculty at a lower level than students at some of the less research-oriented schools within the system.” (emphasis added)

By noting the comparison to “some” other schools, Vedder seem to be acknowledging that UT students rate their relationship with faculty better than student at schools with less research and higher teaching loads.

We need to consider how much attention students want. I teach at an institution with ten hours of mandatory office hours (and I’m in my office much more beyond that). I can tell you this: most SFA students do not want to spend more time in faculty offices. Office hours are lonely times and probably more symbolic than functional.

So, measuring faculty effort by time spent sitting alone in their office may not be the best measure.

Faculty teaching loads

The little relevant data that Vedder presents can be very misleading

The analysis wanders further into murky territory with when he relies on evidence that 20% of UT faculty teach 57% of the students. Anyone who as worked in higher education can tell you how poorly these numbers reflect the effort that goes into providing an education. It can be much easier to teach a class of 200 freshman than 10 graduate students (and that’s not allowing for the fact that sometimes the graduate students are doing all the work teaching the freshmen).

The University of Texas offers top graduate programs taught by world-class scholars. These programs will involve well-paid faculty teaching small classes. There is no way around this. The people who teach in top programs don’t come cheap. Often, the decision of who teaches large introductory classes and who teaches small seminars is driven by program needs and not faculty preferences. A top scholar should not be punished because they have been told that they are needed in the graduate program rather than teaching a freshman introductory course.

The value of a degree

Comparison of value of college degreeVedder also launches an argument from this claim: “A recent Pew Research Center poll showed 57 percent of respondents surveyed thought colleges delivered only poor or fair value to students, while 76 percent of university presidents thought these schools delivered excellent or good value. ”

Note that this is not Vedder’s research. He read the release from the Pew Center and knows about as much about this study as I do. Again, his own research is limited.

Why is quality research important in this case?

First, asking the general public to give opinions about something they know very little about causes all kinds of problems in survey research. How many of these people know much about the cost of college and the benefits? The ratings from the college presidents who know more about it than the general public might actually be a better measure. Vedder assumes the difference between the public and the presidents is an indictment of the presidents’ opinions. Perhaps his assumption says more about what he wants to find than what the correct answer is.

The full report goes on to provide ample evidence that college is a good value: “According to a Pew Research analysis of census data, over the course of a forty-year working life, the typical college graduate earns an estimated $550,000 more than the typical high school graduate, even after factoring in the costs and foregone earnings associated with going to college.” Vedder did not find that worth quoting since it was the part of the study that disagreed with the point he wanted to make.

Second, Vedder is making judgements about the University of Texas-based on a national survey. Any serious analyst hoping that their research would have an impact on millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money should want to make sure that their findings relate to their topic. Do UT grads feel like they got a good value for their education? We don’t know.

And, that is the problem. Too much of the debate is in the hands of people who know very little about the people impacted. Politicians sitting in Austin are writing policies that impact schools like SFA based on commentary about UT written by someone with evidence that is misused and/or relates to other schools.

Reform is needed in higher education. It must be better informed.

Storm warning

High AnxietySo, why the anxiety about higher education?

Why all the “Higher Ed Anxiety”?

There are several sources:

  • The Obama administration, the state of Texas, and the regional accrediting bodies that are making teaching college a bureaucratic tangle of assessment.
  • Politicians in and outside of Texas who have decided to target higher education budgets and make faculty scapegoats.
  • Students who come to us poorly prepared and with much more interest than getting a diploma than the education that goes with it.
  • A society that rejects research whenever it disagrees with what they want to hear.

Those are ongoing problems that deserve our attention. However, there are other challenges. Those come from within and represent challenges we have to take on–even as politicians try to get us to chase our tails and defend ourselves against reforms that are counter-productive.

One of the most troubling challenges come from within the education community. This challenging is best reflected in the recent book Academically adrift: Limited learning on College Campuses. It is especially important against the backdrop the growing number of Americans questioning the value of attending college.

Cover of Academically AdriftThe book offers up a pretty serious indictment of what we are accomplishing in higher education.

On one hand, it is troubling to hear that we are not getting the job done and that we need to re-evaluate what we are doing. On the other, the book really raises questions that we need to be asking anyway. The biggest mistake we can make would be to fail to reexamine the education we offer.

This book has received a lot of attention. It certainly got mine. You can find articles about the book in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. I hope those summaries will hold you until I come back to some specific material from the book in later posts.