Education Opinion

Do Colleges Deserve Diplomatic Immunity?

By Walt Gardner — August 04, 2010 5 min read
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With the start of the fall semester just weeks away, high school seniors and their parents will have to decide which of the 1,600 public and nonprofit private colleges and universities offering a bachelor’s degree offers the educational quality they are seeking. That’s just the problem. The accountability movement to date provides them with little useful information. If education is as vital to the nation’s future as reformers maintain, don’t colleges and universities warrant the same scrutiny as K-12 schools?

The question mark in the title of a new book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus is an indication of the doubt in the minds of the authors about what actually transpires in the academy. Higher Education? (Macmillan Books, 2010) presents a scathing indictment of learning by questioning whether it is higher or education. Their answer is that colleges primarily serve the needs of professors, rather than those of students.

Although the charges are disturbing, they are not new. Interest in assessing college performance began about the same time that “A Nation at Risk” was published. Then in 1990, the National Educational Goals Panel included objectives for higher education. This was followed by the Department of Education’s call for state review boards to assess student progress at colleges and universities that received federal funds. But the nascent movement died when lobbying groups argued that the recommendations were a violation of academic freedom.

In the midst of all this, Charles Sykes wrote Profscam (St. Martin’s Press, 2008). He presented a 15-count bill against professors that included the following: “They have abandoned their teaching responsibilities and their students. To the average undergraduate, the professoriate is unapproachable, uncommunicative, and unavailable.” Reinforcing Sykes’s view, Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) wrote in Time on Feb. 26, 2006 that at elite schools “the credential value of the degree is so high that there’s no penalty to Harvard for placing the needs of its faculty over the best interests of its students” (“What Harvard Taught Larry Summers”).

In 2005, Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terezini published How College Affects Students (Jossey-Bass). The authors reviewed 30 years of research on college learning and concluded that going to any college makes a major difference in improved cognitive skills, verbal and quantitative competence, and different political, social and religious values and attitudes. But the point they made was that while there were wide differences in learning within each college or university, there were insignificant differences between the schools, once the quality of entering students was taken into account.

These three books, among others, describe how colleges and universities fiercely resist any attempt to assess learning that takes place through classroom instruction. They do so in the name of academic freedom and faculty autonomy. But I suspect the real reason is that allowing scrutiny of instructional outcomes would reveal their pedagogical shortcomings. Schools love to brag about their selectivity and yield data, but they avoid providing data about actual learning after students matriculate. When the Intercollegiate Studies Institute assessed civic literacy of 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities in 2006, for example, many schools demonstrated “negative learning,” meaning that seniors performed worse than freshmen.

Critics of my view will counter that I overlook the annual rankings of undergraduate programs that are compiled and published by U.S. News & World Report. But these rankings are methodologically flawed because they largely rely on assessments in which presidents, provosts and deans rate other schools. How likely are officials at one school able to know about the quality of education at another? Critics will also point to the National Survey of Student Engagement, known as Nessie. It is supposed to provide information about what goes on after students matriculate. But Nessie is designed to cover areas outside academic learning. For example, it asks students about the amount of time they spent having a serious conversation with those of different backgrounds and views. There’s nothing wrong with this question, but by itself it does not constitute evidence of learning.

Though never defensible, the reluctance by colleges and universities to submit to hard evaluation is particularly untenable today. The average cost of tuition and fees has risen 250 percent at private schools over the past 30 years and nearly 300 percent at public schools during the same period. These increases have forced students to go deeply into debt. The decision to do so, of course, is something only students and their parents can make. But colleges and universities have not engaged in truth in advertising. Instead of acknowledging that most undergraduate courses are taught by graduate students, they leave the impression that the courses are taught by marquee-name professors. This is academic bait and switch.

There are signs, however, that accountability may be reaching higher education. The Higher Education Act, which determines how colleges and universities get federal dollars, was thought at one point during the Bush administration to be a good place to begin. Instead of relying on high blown rhetoric from the academy, reformers wanted to test college students in order to gather evidence about their progress. The New York Times described the rallying cry as: “Show me the learning” (“Tests Are Not Just for Kids”).

Tradition is hard to change in any institution, and schools with different program priorities admittedly make the task even harder to accomplish. But as the cost of a college degree skyrockets and the importance of a sheepskin grows, the academy will either have to submit to assessment of instruction on its own or have the government do it. It’s a Hobson’s choice that is long overdue.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.