News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Business

April 28, 2013

Higher education completion rates questioned

TERRE HAUTE — Spring is really here. Baseball is being played, the Cubs are already tragic and Faye of the Forest reappeared on the back deck. She was parked on the railing as I sat down to write this column.

“What’s your topic this week?” she asked.

“I could write about the Higher Education Commission and the campaign to get more students to complete their courses of study,” I answered.

“You mean the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (ICHE)?” Faye said. “I never thought of them as being for higher education, only about it.”

I admitted by a grunt I did not understand her remark.

Faye continued: “They crunch numbers and make pronouncements, but I don’t see them as advocates for higher education in Indiana. They have been around since 1971 and I cannot point to anything they have done to advance the cause of higher education in the state.

“The commission has a vague charge to coordinate the missions of the universities with the needs of the state and to make recommendations about their budgets to the General Assembly. But does anyone listen to them?”

“I think,” I said, “they are being listened to these days.”

“Oh,” Faye said, “the completion bit. They want students to complete their degrees in some magical amount of time and for schools to limit increases in tuition costs. That’s a package of unsliced bologna if I ever saw one.”

“You don’t agree that students are better off if they complete their degrees?” I asked.

“Of course they are,” she said. “As long as employers are blind to what is behind the certificate or degree, that piece of paper is worth money.

“But completion of a course of study without obtaining the necessary knowledge is a fraud. It is likely to be a dominant fraud when schools are pressured to put their stamps of approval on unqualified graduates.”

“You are questioning the integrity of the schools and the intelligence of the students and their parents,” I charged.

“Yes,” she admitted. “Second rate becomes the accepted norm when funding from the state is tied to completion rates. Unless there is an outside party certifying the quality of the learning, fraud is to be expected.”

“You mean an accrediting agency like AACSB (the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business)?” I asked.

“No,” Faye shot back. “Traditionally, AACSB has focused on inputs rather than outcomes.  They don’t provide a uniform, unambiguous set of standards.”

“So you want testing before certification or degree granting?” I insisted.

“Yes, if possible,” she said. “But mainly I deplore the state micro-managing the schools. They treat higher education the same way they treat primary and secondary education.

“The legislature cuts the money to the schools and then complains about the need those institutions have to raise funds. Taxes or tuitions rise and the legislature complains about this necessary consequence of their own budgeting.”

“So what do you want?” I asked frustrated.

“If completion rates are a problem, I want evidence to that effect,” she said. “We’ve had ICHE declaring a falling sky before as when they got on a kick about the so-called brain drain. Where’s the evidence of harm to the state?”

As ever, when Faye departed, I was left with much to think about.      

Morton Marcus is an independent economist, writer and speaker. Contact him at mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.

 

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