This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on November 11, 2014.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott became Governor-Elect Abbott last Tuesday evening. Abbott’s team released his plan for reforming Texas highereducation during the gubernatorial campaign. Chief among his objectives is improving college graduation rates. Given years of skyrocketing tuitions here in Texas—as everywhere else in the country—it is likely that his proposal will receive considerable attention.
Nationally, tuitions have increased on average 440 percent in the past quarter century—faster than the increases seen in both the Consumer Price Index and health care costs over the same period. Attempting to keep pace with these price hikes, students and their parents have amassed historic debt, which now stands at $1.2 trillion. For the first time, national student-loan debt is higher than national credit-card debt. What is to be done?
One of the many factors contributing to increasing the cost of college is the decreasing number of students who complete their four-year degrees in four years. The extra time they spend in school past four years only adds to their costs as well as those of taxpayers, who continue to fund them past the four-year mark. Among Texas’s public universities, the highest four-year graduation rate is achieved by the University of Texas-Austin (52 percent). The average for the entire state stands at roughly one-third.
Worse is the fate of those students who enroll in higher education but fail to graduate at all. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the cost of not graduating runs to $13 billion in lost wages by these students, who also leave with, on average, nearly $12,000 in student-loan debt. Finally, the Abbott team calculates a loss of $417 million in “in-state resources spent on first-year dropouts from two-and four-year programs.”
None of us can be happy on reviewing these statistics on college dropouts and the costs they incur to themselves, their families, taxpayers, and the society at large. Looking to remedy this, Governor-elect Abbott points to the efforts of the University of Texas (UT) to increase four-year graduation rates. UT finds that students who borrow for college, but graduate in four years, owe 40 percent on average less than six-year graduates. Moreover, four-year graduates are able to enter the workforce sooner, thus lowering the opportunity cost of a four-year college degree. As well, their earlier departure from campus creates space for new students.
In light of these statistics, the Abbott team’s primary recommendation is to “implement outcomes-based funding at four-year institutions.” That is, “funding at four-year public institutions of higher education, in part, should be based on student performance and timely graduation.” Schools that fail to reach “certain thresholds in the performance measures . . . should not receive the portion of general appropriations tied to that measure.”
The Governor-elect cites a model crafted by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, under which schools are recognized for meeting “student success goals, such as increasing the number of degrees and certificates awarded.” This stands in contrast to Texas’ existing funding model, where schools receive funding based on their student enrollment counts.Under the Coordinating Board’s proposal, a portion of total funding for schools would be awarded based not only on enrollment but also on how well schools “help their students complete their degrees.” So incentivized, the argument goes, universities will better retain and graduate their students. In fact, such an approach already has begun to be implemented at Texas’s public community colleges.
Texas is not alone in its efforts to combat tuition and student-loan debt hyperinflation. At this writing, 16 states have adopted or are moving toward adopting outcomes-based funding. But these states’ desired outcomes center primarily if not exclusively on graduation and persistence rates. While understandable, their singular focus threatens to devalue college degrees. In the rush to increase the quantity of graduates, there is the unavoidable danger that education quality might decline.
Or, rather: “might decline further.” The 2011 landmark study of student learning, Academically Adrift, shocked the nation with its finding that, nationwide, 36 percent of college students achieve only “small or empiricallynon-existent” gains in fundamental academic skills—critical thinking, complex reasoning, and clear writing—after four years invested in college.
A number of factors account for these lackluster results. Since the early 1960s, student study time has dropped on average from 24 hours to 14 hours per week. However, college professors are awarding these lower-effort students ever-higher grades. Fifty years ago, roughly 15 percent of all college grades awarded were A’s, but today, 43 percent of college grades are A’s. An A is today the most common grade given in college.
Doubtless, outcomes-based funding aimed at increasing four-year graduation rates is necessary. But better still would be for all students who graduate in four years to come out with the increase in learning that a four-degree is meant to signify. I have argued for some time that the most important “outcome”—student learning (the central mission of higher education)—should be included as at least an equal partner with graduation and completion rates in any performance-based funding formula.
Decoupled from an external measure of quality control, inflating graduation rates threatens only to deflate further the already-questionable value of too many college degrees.
Happily, the Governor-elect’s team appears keen to this danger. It asks the 84thTexas Legislature, which convenes in January, to link a portion of state funding for two- and four-year institutions not only to graduation rates, but also to “metrics to ensure the quality of instruction, for instance, universities may receive funding based on the percentage of graduates who are employed within six months of graduating.”
In addition to this, the Abbott team should examine basing a portion of funding on how much students increase their fundamental academic skills from their first to fourth year in college, as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), the test employed by Academically Adrift. In the last legislative session, a bill in the Texas Senate (SB 436) was proposed (but was not voted on) that would have required public universities to administer the CLA to all students during their freshman and senior years. The schools also would be required to publish the results, broken down by academic majors. The bill would have focused on transparency in student-learning outcomes as the first step toward raising public awareness about areas of academic strength and weakness in the state’s schools as well as majors. This would help universities to be better able to improve poor-performing areas as well as to trumpet the merits of strong fields. It would simultaneously guide prospective students and their parents toward schools and majors demonstrated to yield significant increases in learning.
In combining its efforts to improve graduation rates with this initiative to measure student learning, Texas, under its new governor, might well unravel the Gordian Knot—better ensuring not only that students graduate on time but also that they do so having received a robust education.