This commentary originally appeared in The Daily Texan on September 29, 2014.
On Sept. 22, President William Powers, Jr. delivered his final state of the university address. In that speech, he laid out nicely the path ahead.
Among UT’s “serious challenges,” he finds “[t]oo many families are being left out of higher education because they can’t afford it.” Affordability is a national issue. President Barack Obama has called on universities to restrain tuitions and make themselves more accountable to students. Tuition increases nationwide over the past quarter-century have outstripped inflation and healthcare cost increases, and forced students to amass historic debt, which, for the first time, exceeds credit-card debt. In 2011, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board commissioner warned, “If we keep going the way we are, a baccalaureate degree at a public university will cost $100,000 at some institutions in five years. We can’t go there.”
To increase affordability, the Powers administration has employed “technology to develop online and blended courses, flipped classrooms, and MOOCs.” His successor would do well to build on this. This might include examining the recently launched Affordable Baccalaureate Program. This online, competency-based program targets a group highlighted by President Powers’s observation that the “demographics and needs of our students are changing.” The new majority of students seeking postsecondary education are “nontraditional”— over 25, and/or working fulltime, and/or supporting families. All programs won’t work everywhere, but the affordability crisis should prompt UT’s next president to examine this innovation’s applicability.
Also contributing to declining affordability are declining teaching loads. Researchers William Massy and Robert Zemsky find this decline a logical response to the fact that faculty promotions are based primarily on publications, which also enhance a school’s ranking. Here UT’s next president might consider THECB’s proposal to “improve credit hours produced per full-time equivalent faculty member by 10 percent.” Any such effort must be, says President Powers, “consistent with [UT’s] soul”— with its “tier-one teaching and research” mission.
To achieve consistency, UT’s next president might consider raising the teaching loads of tenured faculty who have not been publishing for some time, thus increasing teaching without hindering research.
Another tuition-inflation driver is exploding administrative budgets. Benjamin Ginsberg’s 2011 national study finds that, from 1947 to 1995, “[a]dministrative spending … increased by a whopping 235 percent. Instructional spending, by contrast, increased only 128 percent.” UT should be praised for steps already taken under President Powers to reduce administration. The new UT president might consider expanding them.
A national Pew survey finds 75 percent of prospective students deem college simply unaffordable. How to address their concerns? State funding is not the recourse it once was. As President Powers observes, “Other demands [e.g., Medicaid and K-12] on diminishing public resources are growing.” Given these straitened circumstances, restoring affordability must come through university budget-cutting, just as families have had to do this past decade.
Important as affordability is, President Powers rightly notes that UT’s “real goal is increasing the student’s abilities to think critically and communicate.” Hence educators are troubled by the results of the national study, Academically Adrift, which employed the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure undergraduate learning. It finds that, after four years in college, 36 percent of students demonstrate “small or empirically non-existent” gains in critical thinking and written communication.
To address this, roughly 200 universities administered the CLA last year. Although the Washington Post reports that UT-Austin scores in the lowest quartile among peer schools on the CLA, the UT System should be commended for caring enough about student learning to pioneer the CLA’s use. Reformers hope to make UT the model for the state, proposing legislation requiring public universities to administer the CLA to all students, and publish institutions’ results annually.
Another transparency-in-outcomes measure the next UT president might consider involves grading. Why? Professors Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy’s research demonstrates that, in the early ‘60s, an A constituted 15 percent of grades nationwide. Today, an A is the most common grade (43 percent); 73 percent of all grades today are A’s or B’s.
For Rojstaczer and Healy, students are grade inflation’s victims, because they are being deceived. That said, when I was in college, I loved grade inflation! I was wrong. It can take years post-graduation to grasp fully that the professors who challenged you to work harder than you thought capable were your best friends, because life after college grows increasingly difficult. As President Powers cautions, “Global competition is increasing.”
To enhance grading transparency, a number of universities now place on student transcripts, next to the grade the student received for each class, the average grade for the class awarded by the professor. This aids job applicants whose hard-fought A’s currently get lost in a plethora of mostly-A’s-and-B’s transcripts.
These outcomes-measurements would help answer President Powers’ charge to examine “improv[ing] student success.” In the process, UT’s next president would faithfully build on his predecessor’s accomplishments.
Lindsay is the director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and editor of SeeThruEdu.com.