Note: This week, Arnold Shober, associate professor of Government at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, will be guest blogging.
In my home state of Wisconsin, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and challenger Russ Feingold are sparring over whether students go to college just to “have fun” (and whether and how much federal student aid is appropriate). Sen. Bernie Sanders routinely blasts the cost of college. Other critics roast colleges for emphasizing creature comforts and promoting social life at the expense of academics. These criticisms aren’t new, but they come at a politically awkward time for colleges and universities. They’ve been beset by protests, student disillusionment and the threat of lawsuits over “deceptive” admissions material in the last year. This might just be noise; students are short-term residents at colleges, and colleges go though waves of reform much like American K-12 education has. But what makes this disillusionment different, and more disruptive, is that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) promotes higher education as a primary destination after K-12.
At least since 1994, legislators (and a goodly share of governors) have driven education policy on the assumption that “college and career” was the chief end of education. This rationale has had a long ride from the Charlottesville Summit in 1989 to the roll-out of the Common Core in 2014. But if colleges and universities don’t fulfill the promises that ESSA makes on their behalf—academic success, quality employment, lifetime satisfaction—they pose a political threat to the larger ESSA project and to themselves.
As I’ve noted in earlier posts this week, ESSA places state policymakers in a bind. ESSA promotes “challenging state academic standards” that are “aligned” with higher education requirements. But the assessment requirements will tempt policymakers to lower standards to ensure that “every” students can meet them. Lawmakers intended colleges and universities to provide something of a check on low-bar standards—but colleges themselves are struggling with the appropriate level of admissions standards. Despite noise in 2015 by the Obama administration about measuring college success, all that was forthcoming was a weak commitment to enlarging recruitment and a headliner commitment to graduation rates. These goals likely discourage academic purposes in college. And higher collegiate academic standards are sometimes blamed for reducing both admission rates and graduation rates for disadvantaged students— the very students that ESSA is meant to help.
Parents were already skeptical about the Common Core, which promised “fewer, higher, better” standards. If colleges don’t buy into the academic college goals of ESSA, it will be hard for parents or teachers to convince kids that ESSA’s college focus is meaningful. Parents are largely satisfied with American education. Gallup regularly records about a 75 percent approval rating with very little variation. It should have served policymakers a warning that parents played an outsized role in the controversial Common Core roll-out, a fact noted by many and notoriously captured by former Secretary Arne Duncan’s zinger about “white, suburban moms”. And parents of college-going children are typically politically attentive. Their calls to legislators won’t be far behind. If colleges don’t think Common-Core-like academic preparation is necessary for success, perhaps the testing culture isn’t either.
But for colleges and universities there is a political risk, too. Suppose that legislators, prodded by state education officials, hold their ground and keep Common Core or their Common-Core-inspired standards, which were more rigorous than most states’ pre-existing standards. And Education Next‘s 2015 poll found broad support for academic accountability. Although kids’ expectations of going to college are historically high, student debt and confusion about the purpose of college might prompt legislators to “clarify” what college is, at least for public colleges. Legislators have directed technical colleges and community colleges this way for years, and politicians frequently promote them as gateways to employment. It wouldn’t be a reach to apply the same logic to other colleges and universities.
The pressure on colleges and universities is intense in part because they exist in a near-perfectly competitive market. Most students go to college “to get a better job” rather than to experience the academic environment, which leaves only a few (like these) able to compete on those grounds alone. That means that colleges seek to make students comfortable rather than challenged—the colleges need the enrollment, and students aren’t coming for enlightenment. Students now report doing little studying and they admit to more cheating than in the past anyway; colleges can hardly be blamed for serving their customers. Students can get quality academic training at almost any college, but they have to look for it. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because college is about learning to learn, but higher education’s other pressures may undercut ESSA’s promises.
Of course, Sen. Lamar Alexander must know this well, having served as a college president and governor in times past. Perhaps ESSA is just prep work for multiple measures of college learning, which would allow college to set their own standards but would still force them to highlight what happens academically between matriculation and graduation. Some of the measures states have proposed for ESSA could be used for colleges—social intelligence, an achievement test, a culture of learning, for example. Some similar measures are already available, like the HERI, CLA, or similar exams given by colleges, but they are never for public consumption. Instead students rely on U.S. News & World Report ratings that colleges game and have limited connection to the typical undergraduate’s academic program.
Indeed, these alternate measures offer a way out for colleges. Just as ESSA requires a non-tested measure for school assessment purposes, these college measures could build confidence that just the experience of college gives some benefit to less-academically prepared students. Without that confidence, college degrees become increasingly suspect. But colleges and universities will have to participate and report their findings. Public accountability was a revolution in K-12 education twenty years ago; higher education should own-up to its own performance now. That’s hard. Colorado institutions aren’t enamored with public data that allows comparisons on earnings by major across that state’s institutions. But transparency could save both themselves from tighter regulation and ESSA’s promise for improving student preparedness for a career. The measures might also offer some protection from lawsuits from students who do not accrue expected benefits from college—the institution could point to such materials as evidence that the school’s claims about graduation, career expectations, or school climate were supported by public data.
Ironically, ESSA’s devolution of curriculum and standards might stave off a deeper collapse in confidence in the college-and-career project. If ESSA precipitates changes to the style, length, or content of exams, the extremely negative politics surrounding the tests will recede. Perhaps the academic content in reforms like the Common Core will, on balance, improve outcomes for all students. ESSA’s non-tested measure will also help moderate many teachers’ and some parents’ complaints about relentless testing. And ESSA will make K-12 policy more closely mirror the devolved world of higher education. If colleges and universities return the favor and take up more of the academic promises of K-12, they may reach a happy medium. But they will have to make a concerted effort. ESSA, then, may save “college and career"—and federal calls for equity—by surrendering on the specifics.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.