POV: Time Has Come To Measure Quality In New and Different Ways
Access to higher education is increasingly seen as a right. Yet while 90 million adults are without a degree, and our standard of living is falling, barriers are being erected which impede access. The largest obstacle is cost. Four years of tuition can exceed the price of a new home in 2003 ($207,000). Simultaneously, state and local governments are reducing their spending on higher education.
But cost is not the only barrier. Institutions are limiting access in other ways. Increased admissions selectivity is seen as a way to burnish an institution’s reputation and increase its national ranking. By limiting admissions to those with the highest GPAs, colleges position themselves as more prestigious. Additionally, strong students are easier to teach and more likely to graduate.
Higher graduation rates appease politicians, regulators and accreditors while drawing plaudits from the media. This is important as the federal government asks what it is getting for its billions of dollars in financial aid. Recruiting is also easier for a selective institution. With private schools, they see less resistance to high tuition as students associate selectivity and high price with quality.
If prestige is the enemy of access, does it follow that those offering access to returning adults compromises quality? No!
My institution is one of open access. Its mission is to provide opportunity to students not well-served by traditional higher education. Our students tend to be older, with children, working, from lower socio-economic circumstance and, often, the first member of their family to attend college. Many are minorities. Some lack the academic preparation necessary to college success. These are “high risk” students.
Some public institutions have sought to end open enrollment, citing the high cost of remediation. Before taking such a step, we need to ask: 1) What constitutes quality? 2) Are graduation rates the only metrics that matter? and 3) What is the long-term cost of restricting access to only those we think will graduate?
Perhaps the time has come to measure quality in new ways — through a comparison of learning outcomes, and not from graduation rates alone. If quality is determined by learning, measured against standardized criteria, we might gain a new perspective as to what constitutes a “quality” institution.
It may also be time to recognize that adult-serving, open access institutions are not Ivy League schools or public research universities. While we share commonalities, those serving adults differ from those educating 18- to 24 year-olds. We are a segment of higher education with uniquely a different mission and values.
For the moment, graduation rates, rightly or wrongly, are seen as an indicator of quality. While waiting for agreement around benchmarks, those at open institutions can take comfort knowing that, “The largest gains in graduation rates over the past decade have been accomplished at open-access or nearly open access colleges and universities,” according to research by William Doyle at Vanderbilt University. He states that, “(our research) challenges a commonly held notion that the best way to increase graduation rates is to make colleges more selective.”
“Nonselective colleges and universities (those that accept at least 80 percent of applicants) are leading the way in improving graduation rates,” he wrote. “These (institutions) account for most of the increases in completion rates in 33 states. In 16 (states), these institutions account for 75 percent of the increases.”
There is no question that institutions need to focus greater attention on degree completion. But this should not be a reason for less rigor or quality. Neither do we want performance measured through comparisons to very different, traditional institutions. We need to answer some hard questions.
What is the cost of not maintaining open access? Can we meet the goal to increase degree completion if we turn more students away? Will we be able to remain competitive without a more educated workforce? What are the employment prospects for those we turn away, and what will this mean for social stability? Without an educated workforce, how do we sustain our economy and standard of living?
Then there is the issue of societal assimilations. With one-third of the nation’s population expected to be Hispanic by mid-century, we should recall the “moral purpose” of education that John Dewey wrote about.
“Access to education is pivotal to preserving democracy in a multicultural society,” he noted. With open access, workers from different backgrounds are acculturated and integrated into society. They gain knowledge and skills necessary to civic engagement and employment. Without such opportunity, there is a danger that new arrivals will become a drain on social services and the economy. This can create social tension and unrest.
America’s adults must have the opportunity to participate in higher education if we want to preserve our democratic way of life and our standard of living. Access is not just about who gets into college. It is also about who gets the knowledge and skills necessary for individual and national well-being. Not all will succeed but all should have a chance.