Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Quality of Education Problem

In my book Why Public Higher Education Should be Free, I argue that universities and colleges can only reduce costs and improve quality if they concentrate on their core missions of instruction and pure research.  When schools fail to focus on these basic activities, they end up spending enormous funds on side projects; in other words, when quality education is not the main priority, there is no way to contain costs.  However, the problem remains of how do you define and monitor educational quality?

This question of educational quality became a topic of debate at a recent meeting at Governor Brown’s office.  The objective of this stakeholder’s meeting was to discuss how best to implement Assembly Bill 94, which calls for the UC and CSU to report on the following performance measures:  the four-year graduate rate, the six-year graduation rate, the two-year transfer graduation rate, the number of low-income students, the number of transfer students from community colleges  enrolled, the number of degree completions in the STEM disciplines, the number of course credits accumulated by undergrad students at time of graduation, and the total amount of funds received per undergraduate degree.

At this meeting, I argued that while I applaud the governor’s focus on the state’s university systems, his metrics will be counter-productive if the quality of education is not protected.  For example, to increase graduation rates, the UC can simply increase the size of classes, inflate the credits given to particular classes, and offer more credit for non-UC classes.  Although I do not think we should push for standardized tests to see what students are actually learning in their classes, I do think the state can motivate universities to focus their attention on undergraduate instruction by reporting on the following: percentage of the core budget spent on direct instructional activities, student credit hours generated in courses of less than 26 students, and student credit hours generated in courses taught by full-time faculty (whether tenure-track or not). The universities should also report on the increased costs related to administration on each campus. 

Like President Obama’s recent push for more accountability measures in higher education, the state’s focus on inputs and outputs does not look at what actually happens in the classroom.  What I propose in my book is that higher ed institutions need to monitor the quality of education by using the model of assessment that is presented in the UC lecturer’s contract.  All higher ed teachers should be able to demonstrate that they can communicate their course material in an effective manner, that they have a clear and effective method for assessing student learning, and that they are current in their field. The idea here is not to dismiss the important role of research, but rather, to tie research to teaching and to make sure that minimal standards for instruction are met.     

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