Monthly Archives: July 2011

Another revolution in higher education

Texas’ Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes told reporters this week that the state needs to “reinvent” higher education in the stateSome of the coverage focused on the goals set out by the “Closing the Gaps by 2015: The Texas Higher Education Plan” since the coordination board is due to release its annual report on progress. However, Paredes has clearly decided to go beyond that report to push more dramatic changes. It is not clear why.

Life in higher education today feels like life in Communist China under Mao. Change constantly comes under banners like “The Cultural Revolution” or “A Thousand Flowers.” In the end, the tough decisions aren’t made and little changes.

Streamlining higher education.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported today, HB 3025 takes effect soon. This law will mandate that students file a degree plan no later than the semester immediately following the semester they student earned a cumulative total of 45 or more credit hours. As one expert pointed out, “It’s a good idea, but being able to develop and staff an advising system, especially in a community college that serves so many students who attend part-time and sometimes attend with no degree expectation, is a challenge.”

The bill also mandates a process that will coordination offerings between institutions. This will help a few students graduate more quickly. However, I suspect that this will have only a very, very small impact on graduation rates. In the meantime, the Texas Legislature will have spawned an even bigger bureaucracy in Austin.

The problem is that the state can not legislate a direction for students who do not have one. Mandating that students fill out a form does not  mean that they will find and choose a path they will stick to. Similarly, streamlining course transfers will help a few students. However, many of the problems with unusable hours goes back to students changing majors or taking classes without consulting (or simply ignoring) their academic advisors.

There is very little efficient about students at a turbulent time in their lives making decisions about a future that is uncertain. I doubt the law can change that.

Budget cuts and rising tuition

The “Texplainer” feature of the Texas Tribune looks at the question of whether or not budget cuts will lead to increases in tuition.

Rick O’Donnell defends his approach

Rick O’Donnell, one of the chief architects of higher education reforms pushed by Governor Perry, defends his approach in Inside Higher Education. His attacks on faculty was also recently covered in the Houston Chronicle (“Ex-UT System adviser slams faculty“).

I don’t think that O’Donnell understands how clumsy his measures are and that bad data can be worse than no data. It’s tremendously frustrating to see the debate on state-wide higher education driven by bad research on just two schools.


There has been additional coverage of the debate in the Texas Tribune (“UT, Coalition Strike Back at O’Donnell Analysis“).

Debating the “big lie”

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.

Faculty salaries

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.

Average Faculty Salaries, 2003-2011

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.

Graduation rates

THECB data shows that Texas ranks 17th among states in graduation ratesIt 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):

An overview of Texas higher education statistics

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:

  1. They care (a lot) about education.
  2. 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.

The performance of Texas students on ACT and SAT tests

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

“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.
Everyone gets a ribbon
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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Grade inflation

A story in Insider Higher Ed (“Easy A“) reports that a recent study of grades found that 43% of college grades are As.

The summary of the article (all I have access to) states:

Contemporary data indicate that, on average across a wide range of schools, A’s represent 43% of all letter grades, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. D’s and F’s total typically less than 10% of all letter grades. Private colleges and universities give, on average, significantly more A’s and B’s combined than public institutions with equal student selectivity. Southern schools grade more harshly than those in other regions, and science and engineering-focused schools grade more stringently than those emphasizing the liberal arts. At schools with modest selectivity, grading is as generous as it was in the mid-1980s at highly selective schools. These prestigious schools have, in turn, continued to ramp up their grades. It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.

I have to admit that I am very surprised by these finding and worried about the implications.

An education shortage

The Center of Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University has released a report (The full report in pdf) that says that American needs another 20 million people with a post-secondary education.

The battle continues

Texas has ended up in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education (again) with an article (“Texas Coalitions Spar Over Scholars’ Time, Research, Pay“) about the groups battling of Perry’s higher education reforms. You can only read the article if you subscribe to the Chronicle.

The best summary of the criticism of the reforms came from Peter T. Flawn, president emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin:

If the so-called solutions to as-yet-undefined problems advanced by the Texas Public Policy Foundation were to be forced on our institutions of higher education, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M would, in a very few years, go from being first-class graduate research institutions to second-rate degree mills.

Some of the call for reforms can be seen coming from conservatives like Michael Quinn Sullivan who heads Empower Texans. Sullivan slammed critics claiming, “These guys sipping coffee in the top floor of the ivory tower are upset because somebody’s asking questions.”

Sullivan is only partly correct that faculty don’t like people asking a bunch of questions. The state’s universities have been overseen by political appointees for decades and we have learned to live with the scrutiny of regents who are familiar with the education we offer.  The criticism of these political groups is different. Empower Texans, like it national counterpart Empower America, is looking for ways to cut government and have little understanding of higher education and little interest in the consequences of cuts. They just want less government. In the end, this is the heart of the issue for many critics of higher education. They want the costs to be lower and are suspicious of any facts or arguments that tell them they can not have more for less.

One final note: Justin Keener, spokesman for Texas Business for Higher Education, challenged critics of Perry’s reforms “to come up with their own ideas for measuring productivity and not just say it’s too complicated.” His complaint may seem valid to anyone unfamiliar with higher education in America. However, anyone who has worked on a university campus knows that someone is constantly re-evaluating and re-designing what we teach and how we measure what we do.  Just keeping up with the new strategic plans, changes in accreditation, or other change is a major challenge and the notion that universities do not grapple with these issues reflects a lack of understanding.

Reform is always present on campus. The problem is that the reforms coming from the political world do too much to change what is working in higher education and not enough to address the real need for broader change.

What Perry wants in higher education

The Texas Tribune has an article (“Parsing the History of Perry’s Higher Ed Battles“) that gives a pretty good overview of what the Governor’s agenda in higher education looks like.

One interesting twist is that Perry wants to dictate more of what goes on in Texas’ universities even as the funding from the state drops. For example, Texas Tech has seen the share of funding it gets from the state plummet from 56 percent in 1990 to 36 percent in 2010. The University of Texas has seen its contribution from the state drop from 52 percent thirty years ago to 14 percent.

I think that Scott Caven, the former chairman of the UT board of regents, may provides a pretty balanced view: “I certainly don’t think Rick Perry is the anti-education governor. I just think that the of the proposals he and some of his appointees are suggesting seem to be overly simplistic solutions to very complex issues.”

On the trail of the elusive lazy professor

The Houston Chronicle has a story (“Higher ed critics target elusive ‘lazy professor'”) on the efforts of a few reformers to create the image of lazy professors. Reformers want universities to be judged based on the laziest, most self-serving faculty members out there.

Ironically, this story came out while Rick Perry was hard at work calling party activists in Iowa. Anyone interested in what the Governor’s is doing to earn to a six-figure salary and $10,000 a month in living expenses can check out the Perry Tracker at the Texas Tribune.

What reformers are learning (or should be learning) is that simplistic measures of faculty workload do little to provide useful data. A recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Efforts to Measure Faculty Workload Don’t Add Up“) summarizes some of the problems. For example, I found it easier to teach 200 undergraduates in an introduction to US politics course that to teach ten students in an advanced research seminar. The undergraduate courses that focus on developing writing skills take much more work than those where content is best measured through a few exams. Work like directing theses or dissertations and supervising interns involve great deal of one-on-one time and must look incredibly inefficient on paper.

The research and service components of faculty performance are similarly complicated and there are huge differences across teaching fields and universities. The desire of a few politicians to try to impose solutions based on sketchy data will do much more harm than good.