Thursday, March 18, 2010
By John Schneider
The new state initiative to ensure more accountability in the public higher education system was a breath of fresh air to those of us at MassINC who have been arguing for years that the system needs to focus more on outcomes.
The “Vision Project”, announced at the March 16th meeting of the Board of Higher Education by commissioner Richard Freeland, will provide data on seven key outcomes measuring higher education effectiveness and the economy. Of the seven, three strike us as particularly important: 1) the college going rates of Massachusetts high school graduates; 2) college graduation rates and other student success rates; and 3) a comparison of student achievement across various demographic groups.
It’s no secret that the state’s economy has shifted from muscle power to brain power over the last 20 years. A college education, and increasingly a college degree in the right field, is the only reliable strategy for getting through these challenging economic times. Massachusetts has a healthy mix of public and private colleges and universities. However, as higher education becomes more and more expensive (see Mass INC reports Planning for College and Paying for College), what you get for your money—the value and quality of higher education—becomes more important for students and families, and also taxpayers, who foot the bill for financial aid, operating subsidies, and the tax-exempt status of our institutions of higher learning. It seems right that the public system be required to report on key outcome data.
What’s not so clear is what’s next? What happens if the results are great—or lousy? Will anyone care? Will the Vision Project help students become better consumers and help families make better choices in the complicated and confusing higher education marketplace?
Of course the biggest question of all is should, and if so, how, do we evaluate college student learning? For more than 15 years now, MCAS has put the performance of the K-12 system under the microscope. Efforts to deal with failing schools are accelerating in Boston and elsewhere across the commonwealth. That’s why it was discouraging to read in a related Boston Globe story comments from a college official who said:
"The fear is…that we’ll be asked to do what our K-12 colleagues have been asked to do, come up with seven to eight important things and then teach to the test. We’re not interested in that. "
Well, maybe it’s just me, but knowing that college students are learning something is exactly what I’m interested in—especially with my own daughter a year away from college and facing four years of tuition bills that will only go up between now and her college graduation. The Vision Project is an important first step toward more accountability and we applaud the commissioner for putting this on the table. But it’s only the first step.
John Schneider is the Executive Vice President of MassINC