Assessing All of Us

I want to thank many of the commenters on my last post for steering the conversation toward the subject of assessment. Many of the comments echoed one another, and they need to be taken seriously. I had pounced on Daymar College, and the serious allegations currently being made by Kentucky’s Attorney General about that chain of private for-profit colleges. Several commenters made the point that if I’m going to assess Daymar (using metrics such as entrance requirements and graduation rates) then it’s only fair that I assess all of America’s colleges and universities, both for-profit and traditional. Here’s some of what I got:

From a Kentucky native, suspicious of Attorney General Conway’s motives: "My grandson attends a public university. He bought his books at Amazon; however, he has to buy an access code from the university. This access code is included with the price of the book sold at the bookstore; however, it is almost the price of the combined book/code sold at the bookstore. The way the access code was priced, it would have been cheaper to use the bookstore. I do not condone the "screwing" of the students. I just think that it happens in the public sector too often, yet Mr. Conway (KY’s Attorney General) will just turn the other way to attack the private (i.e. proprietary) schools. It is a popular topic in Washington and he wants to work there because his political future in Kentucky is limited at this time.”

The same commenter, "bigjoe," elaborates on a related point: "I work for a Private college. I just want the government agencies to treat ALL schools (Public and Private) equally. If the schools can not deliver, they should be closed. They should also remember that many private schools are educating the students that the public universities had rejected for some reason. I do know that a private has to have a Nursing Board pass rate of 85% or they get into trouble. I just don’t understand how Kentucky State University has a 40% rate, yet remains in good standing."

“Education2011” adds: “Let’s consider just the book monopoly issue. Sure, it isn’t right to require students to buy books from a particular place. But taking advantage of students in the bookstore is far more prevalent at every large university in the land. Investigate faculty who require high-priced books authored by themselves. Investigate the practice of circumventing the requirement to allow students to buy their books anywhere by slightly customizing the book giving it a unique ISBN. What Daymar was doing is dwarfed by the impact of these practices on students’ costs. But this is more politically motivated than caring for the interests of students. If that were the case, there are much bigger wastes in higher education to tackle than this.”

Both “greensubmarine” and “betterschool” accuse me of unfairly picking on Daymar, when some of Daymar’s practices are widespread, extending to non-profit colleges and universities.

The discussion, which I wish had been less hateful and more analytical, has certainly led me to reexamine my biases (alas, we all have them). It’s led me first to think about the terms of accountability which we should apply to all postsecondary institutions. And here I’d ask for constructive suggestions. If “bigjoe” is right, and Kentucky State’s nursing program is held to a much lower standard than even one proprietary institution, that may well reflect a deeply unfair accreditation bias against for-profits, an unexamined assumption that all public universities are more legitimate than all for-profits. And, as my critics pointed out, that’s been my unexamined assumption, the chief bias I’m looking to reconsider.

More to follow, as I don’t want to introduce a new topic this late in the post, but let me conclude with some questions. First and most fundamental, how do we assess college degrees—proprietary, public, private:  graduation rates? Portability of credits? Earning power? All of these are deeply flawed. Some battery of national standardized tests for, say sophomores and seniors? I admit, I’ll have nightmares about this last one, since it mimics the unfunded mandate No Child Left Behind, which has been a national catastrophe. Sadly though, it’s the only national assessment policy that has actually been tried. Can we do better, and if so, how?


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