June 24, 2010

Botched credit hours and blotted copybooks

A week ago, Ed Sector's Forrest Hinton asked six questions about higher-education accountability. Below are the questions, my quick responses, and some discussion about the fallout from this month's hearings on accreditation and for-profit institutions:

Q. As the monolithic traditional university begins to break down and diversify, should we continue to trust providers of higher education and accreditation agencies to provide meaningful accountability?

A. What "monolithic traditional university"? There's never been such a creature in history; there has always been tremendous diversity of institutions. For the performative culture of accountability, see this morning's IHE column by Cliff Adelman.

Q. Is there a sound method of measuring student learning outcomes in higher education that won't turn college courses into workshops where students learn simple facts, algorithms, and skills?

A. Yes, but whether it's politically robust is a different question, and I think you have to give up on the singular form. The Utah Tuning project report placed on the Ed Sector blog page is both promising in terms of the faculty engagement in the project and also curious in the very different levels of detail in the expectations laid out for the two disciplines in the project (history and physics). See below for the short-term landscape in more detail.

Q. Now that the federal government is providing a lot of higher education's revenue through student loans, how much responsibility does the government have to ensure quality and monitor costs?

A. The federal government has been subsidizing college loans for decades, and since the early 1980s the bulk of federal aid has been in the form of loan subsidies rather than direct grants. What has changed in the past few decades is the cost-shifting from states to students and their families. So maybe the federal government feels more inclined towards wanting something for the dollars because the cost-shifting also shifts somewhat more support onto the federal government, but lower state support hasn't been accompanied by lower demands for accountability.

Q. Is there a trade-off between innovation and regulating quality in higher education? If so, what is the appropriate way to balance these competing forces?

A. This question is ambiguously phrased, and I am interpreting as a question about for-profit schools. (The last question is about credit hours, which covers distance education given this month's politics.) As we learned from the shadow banking sector and the financial crisis of 2008, regulators are frequently way behind creative people who want to make a buck, especially if something has been deregulated because people think history has ended (e.g., the repeal of Glass-Steagall). Right now, for-profit companies of all types peddle degrees or the mirage of a college education with widely varying claims of success, and they have become remarkably adept at vacuuming up federal funds. Some administrators in different institutions tell me that's not only in terms of college loans but also G.I. Bill funds, though I don't have independent confirmation of that claim. To the extent that taxpayers and students are on the hook for loans, that practice has to have some scrutiny. In the early 1990s, the screening mechanism was default rates. Today, I think another measure is needed, but I'm not sure what that might be, maybe federal subsidy per graduate (with some calculation of the effective subsidy for loans).

Q. If higher education's traditional accountability structures are unable to provide adequate oversight, can we make use of other ways of ensuring quality instead, like through informed consumer demand?

A. Again, what "traditional accountability structures"? Name one that has existed for at least five years in any state and that has remained stable. With all of Adelman's caveats, maybe it's something we should try.

Q. When measuring course credit hours, how do we allow innovative new approaches in education to meet the standards implied from traditional rules on seat time, lab experiences, etc.?

A. This is obviously the hot topic du jour, since regional accreditors have looked the other way while some for-profits essentially bought accreditation by absorbing a few nonprofits and since at least one regional accreditor also paid little attention when a for-profit passed off a tuition-generating mechanism as real education. So let's explore this a bit more...

The difficulty with a Wild West of education is that you don't know what a course means. When an unaccredited institution is taking students' money but it's not telling the world it's anything but what it is, and if the students aren't lying about what the diploma means, it's just an experience someone pays for. Are you paying for classes in aerobic yoga weightlifting? That sounds like something taught by the Macho Yoga Instructor my mother once had years ago, but if it's your money and just your experience, that's fine with me. It's different once public funds are involved and once credentials have an exchange value in the labor market, and even more complicated if you're a student having taken courses at two colleges and wanting those courses to transfer into a third to help you get a degree.

Given the background to this morning's hearing in DC, there are clearly bad actors (or bad actors), and the temptation might be to have a rigid definition of what a credit hour is for course purposes, either for federal student-loan purposes or for transfer purposes. For the moment let's skip the question of entirely-online class and talk about about courses that blend some class time with other experiences such as online discussions, tutorials, etc. What counts as a credit hour: the time you spend in class, the time you spend actively working on assignments, the time you vaguely think about the course? What about people who read at different speeds: does the slower reader sign up for and pay for more hours for a course than the faster reader?

The reality is that the credit hour is an institutional convention that is malleable to help everyone account for student progress through programs as well as for tuition purposes. A good example of the malleability is in performing-arts programs. No matter how long a performance music major practices for it, my guess is that a college symphony orchestra class will always be one or two credit hours, no more, because that is the way to address the conflict between wanting students to be in performance classes every semester and also graduate without having to pay more than an engineering student: you require performance and studio classes every semester, but the total of all classes (including theory, music history/ethnomusicology, electives) doesn't add up to more than 15 hours in a semester.

One feasible way to address the credit-hour issue is to have disciplinary conventions for classes that need cursory vs. more extensive inspection, something that factors in both the nature of the discipline and the credit-hour load. A performance class that's one or two credit hours? Let's definitely not worry much about that. Undergraduate U.S. history class carrying three credit hours that blends one hour of lecture, one hour face-to-face discussion, and one hour of online activity? That's a conventional discipline and credit-hour load, with a slight bit of innovation: a little more scrutiny. Vague class in an unorthodox or vocational program that's 9 hours? Let's worry a lot more about that.

In terms of the giant leap that some are going to suggest: should we have institutional-level assessment for every class that can hold colleges and universities accountable? That is more likely to work for limited courses that everyone (or almost everyone) takes in the first two years than for the broad range of classes students take in their majors. Regional accreditors are now pushing institutions to develop such institution-wide assessment for general education programs, and while I am concerned about some of the consequences of that, it is at least plausible to have common assessments in composition, first-year calculus, and so forth. But something for the Celtic Civilization course my wife took with linguist Nancy Dorian? Good luck! (For those who are curious, it was a culture class, not a language class. I signed up for it initially but had to drop it, much to my regret.)

Some observers have argued that the likely fallout from the for-profit hearings will touch far more than the for-profits, and that's right for several reasons. One is that high-tuition institutions that are either for-profit or non-profit will be involved in a disproportionate amount of subsidized loans than low-tuition institutions simply because of tuition, so they will invite scrutiny. Second is that the questions about online classes in for-profit institutions are very close to the questions that you can ask about non-profit private and public institutions' online classes. Third is an institutionalized consequence an administrator and I were discussing this week: the hearings, any changes in law, and any changes in regulations will affect regional accreditors, who in turn will push additional mechanisms down on all of the institutions they oversee. I suspect that from a paperwork-burden perspective, accreditors will have to slice up the oversight mechanisms in some way to avoid peeking into every single course. It may not be my suggested slice, but if they don't perform some triage, oversight is just unworkable.

Finally, I think I misspelled Barmak Nassirian's name in a comment on IHE in the last week, but we all need to learn how to spell his name correctly since we're going to be reading a lot of what he writes and says in his capacity as associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO). During the life of the Spellings Commission, Nassirian was the go-to person for many higher-ed reporters, and I suspect we'll be hearing a lot from him in the next half-year or so.

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Posted in Education policy on June 24, 2010 4:10 PM | Submit