In an op-ed piece in the Austin American Statesman, Governor Rick Perry warned Texans about “the big lie” about higher education in Texas. To be fair, you should read it and give the Governor a chance to make his case.
That being said…
Let’s break down the great truths emanating from the governor’s office.
It is true that the cost to student of higher education has skyrocketed over the last decade. However, we could begin the indictment of higher education costs by saying: “Since Rick Perry became governor of Texas…” Is it fair to place all the blame for this on Perry? No. However, every state budget and every appointment to every board of regents at a state institution bears the signature of Rick Perry.
Faculty salaries have not skyrocketed since tuition was deregulated in 2003. According to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, salaries increased about 28%. In that time the American Institute for Economic Research estimates that the cost of living has increased about 20%. Overall, faculty have done well, but they are not the cause of the rapid growth in costs.
It is true that some of the most experienced faculty (usually at the state’s “Tier One” universities) earn six-figure salaries. However, those people not only have the highest degrees offered in their field, they usually teach in the programs that offer the most advanced degrees offered. They are also expected to be at the top of their field in research.
Is six-figures too much for the most senior at the top of their field? Anyone think that schools can compete with private sector employers for less?
In any case, those are not professors sitting in the luxury boxes at baseball game. My colleagues and I are usually in the discounted seating in upper deck.
Why do so many of the reforms implicate faculty? It is simple: Faculty are an easy political target. Professors fit the old “culture war” game that goes back to the 1960s. My salary is about half of Rick Perry’s housing allowance from the state and it get frustrated when he tries to portray people like me as some kind of elites who are out of touch with reality.
It is true that many students will attend a university and not graduate. Specifically, Perry points out that “Four-year graduation rates at Texas institutions of higher education currently average just 28.6 percent.” The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) in its Public Higher Education Almanac highlights a 49.3% graduation rate to make the case that Texas is doing a good job. The graduation rate is 28.6% after four years, 55.9% after six years, and 65.8 percent after ten years. (The THECB also has figures showing that our tuition is below average. So, it is clear that Perry didn’t have time to read all of the report.)
Those are the facts of the matter. For those of you who do not want to read the whole report, here is the summary of the state’s data right out of page 20 of the THECB’s report (click on it, it will get bigger):
The Governor should begin his search for the big truth behind the numbers by asking why asking why more students do not graduate. That is a better question than asking why universities do not graduate more students.
There are many reasons why students do not graduate (or do not graduate “on time”). One problem is that students are working more. And, they are working more to pay for their schooling beyond instruction. University housing and dining is much less spartan than previously. Also, research indicates that students are working more to spend on things beyond their education.
What is especially insulting about the Governor’s approach to this issue is that his arguments imply that university faculty, staff, and administrators do not care about students. If that is not a lie, then it is just plain silliness. I have learned several things from decades of living and working among faculty:
- They care (a lot) about education.
- Caring about students means holding to our highest expectations to them and not lowering standards.
The THECB and others have pointed out that students are not prepared for college when they leave high school. In fact, Texas students fall in the bottom third of ACT & SAT scores.
Do the math yourself: The state’s public education bureaucracy and most Texans agree on the fact that many students are not ready for college. Wouldn’t we be suspicious if all those students are graduating?
This leads us to a risk of the Perry education reforms: lack of accountability for students.
“Success-based” funding (funding schools based on how many students complete a class–not how many attempt the class) is to higher education what social promotion is to public schools. It’s a very clear message that the state is pressuring the schools to pass the students.
So, how do you get more students to succeed in Texas? Tell more students that they succeeded. Everyone gets a ribbon. Eventually, everyone gets a diploma.
It is remarkable to me that this comes from conservatives who had previously favored accountability, responsibility, and discipline.
Who defines success?
We need to look at who will be setting the standard. Perry’s answer: students.
This is an outgrowth of the “customer-based” model of education. This approach has two major flaws:
- Student are not the customer. We are preparing students for the workplace and citizenship. This is why so many businesses weighed in against education cuts. Higher education serves the community in general and not just the demands of individual students.
- Students are not the best judge of classroom learning. Carrell and West, in a 2010 article in the Journal of Political Economy, found after studying student performance at the Air Force Academy that more experienced teachers produced more deep learning that aided performance in future classes. That deeper learning was not evident from student evaluations and the authors conclude:
“… student evaluations reward professors who increase achievement in the contemporaneous course being taught, not those who increase deep learning. Using our various measures of teacher quality to rank-order teachers leads to profoundly different results. Since many U.S. colleges and universities use student evaluations as a measurement of teaching quality for academic promotion and tenure decisions, this ﬁnding draws into question the value and accuracy of this practice.”
So, letting students defining success fails on at least two counts.
Research vs. Teaching
Perry uses much of the article to proclaim his deep and abiding love for research. He seems distraught at the notion that faculty are not feeling the love. There are two important points here:
- The “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” and other initiatives backed by Perry’s appointees have clearly raised arguments and created measures that target the research done by many faculty members. Yes, Perry has pushed for more Tier One universities in the state and signed legislation funding research. At the same time, his office has been pushing behind the reform package that challenged the place of research in the state’s universities.
- It is legitimate to question the value of research and everything else done with taxpayer dollars. The problem is the approach to measuring the value of research is too clumsy and poorly informed to improve the situation. Trying to impose a simplistic cost/benefit formula mandated by a central government is doomed to failure. Further, universities are tasked with taking on the research that private sector shuns because it does not produce an immediate return on the investment. The very nature of university research makes a simple cost/benefit analysis difficult.
The role of research in the university is complicated and measures of quality must be nuanced. Perry’s search for politically expedient metrics does a great injustice to much of the research.
So, Perry’s “truth” does not hold up well. In the process he made himself look small. Tossing around the “big lie” label associated with Hitler was a cheap shot and an unpleasant insight into the kind of rhetoric we can expect from Perry’s staff. I suspect that Perry has been duped by a few large donors and campaign operatives into embracing a set of reforms that he would reject if given the time to focus more seriously on the issue. Unfortunately, Perry is not one to reconsider decisions–especially after he has staked out a position during a campaign.