Colleges Work to Maintain an Information Deficit About Their Effectiveness

To graduate from college students do not have to demonstrate anything whatsoever beyond passing grades. Students do not, for example, take a standardized test administered to students from multiple universities, so their performance cannot be measured against a common benchmark. As Philip Greenspun points out, “There is literally no way that a university can be embarrassed by its graduates’ poor overall performance.”

Without accountability, colleges don’t have an incentive to actually succeed at teaching students basic critical thinking skills. And so a majority of college graduates enter society without them. According to Kevin Carey, in the journal Democracy: “A 2006 study from the American Institutes for Research found that only 31 percent of adults with bachelor’s degrees are proficient in ‘prose literacy’ — being able to compare and contrast two newspaper editorials, for example. More than a quarter have math skills so feeble that they can’t calculate the cost of ordering supplies from a catalogue.” Remember, this is 31% of the 25% of Americans who even have bachelor’s degrees.

Unfortunately, it’s exceedingly difficult to figure out which colleges are helping students and which aren’t. Right now there is no “objective, publicly available information about how well colleges teach and how much college students learn. Nobody knows which colleges really do the best job of taking the students they enroll and helping them learn over the course of four years.”

It’s not for lack of data. Colleges are now collecting rich data sets about how students learn, how much time they spend studying, how engaged they are in class, and how well they know certain concepts. There are dozens of studies conducted by outside organizations and government regulators about student learning and professor teaching — and yes they probe for things like critical thinking and creativity.

The reason there’s no access to the data is because colleges do not want it to be public.

One of the most powerful special interests lobbies that nobody’s ever heard of…is the American Council on Education (ACE), the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), and a host of other alphabet-soup organizations conspire to maintain higher education secrecy at all costs.

For example:

in 2006, Mark Schneider, the commissioner of the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, proposed adding some new questions to the annual survey all colleges are required to fill out in exchange for federal funds. Colleges would be asked if they participated in surveys and tests like NSSE and the CLA. [Tests which measure teacher effectiveness and overall student learning.] If the college answered “yes,” and had already chosen to make the data public, it would be asked to provide a link to the appropriate Web address. It would not be required to participate in any test or survey not of its choosing, or disclose any new information. It would just have to tell people where to find the information it had already, voluntarily, disclosed. One Dupont Circle rose up in anger and the proposal was summarily squashed.

Why are colleges so eager to keep private the data? The obvious reason is because the data are embarrassing and everyone would prefer to be held less accountable. The more interesting reason is that the older colleges with better reputations dominate the lobbying effort and they benefit disproportionally from the “existing, information-starved reputation market.”

See, the lack of data about which colleges are doing a good job — whose graduates are succeeding, whose are not — means that the customer (high school seniors) suffer from an information deficit. As Carey explains, this turns college into a “reputational good”: “You’re paying up-front for professors you’ve never met and degree programs you probably haven’t even chosen yet. Instead, you rely on what other people think of the college. Of course, some students simply have to go the college that’s nearest to them or least expensive. But if you have the luxury of choosing, in all likelihood, you choose based on reputation.”

If there were clear data about which colleges were doing a good job and which were not, colleges could distinguish themselves based on how well students actually learned. This would give newer entrants into the higher ed market a better shot at competing. At present, even if they’re doing a good job teaching students, newer colleges must wait for reputation to catch up to reality. This can take generations. Wouldn’t it be better if there was a detailed database online showing every possible metric?

Bottom Line: The sorry truth is that “colleges remain indifferent to how well they help students learn, graduate, and succeed in the workplace.” And “like the church…they see themselves as occupying an exalted place in human society, for which they are owed deference and gratitude.” We should demand that all data around the effectiveness of colleges at teaching students be made public and easily searchable so that consumers of higher education can make more informed choices.

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