Friday, November 03, 2006

A conference on student success

For the past couple of days I have been in Washington at a conference organized by the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (NPEC) which is a loose group of researchers and other people interested in better data for higher education.
There have been a couple of highlights.

On the first day, the Commissioner for National Education Statistics, in a role that was supposed to introduce Derek Bok who as the interim president of Harvard has cache to speak in almost any higher education assembly, veered off course to do a rant for something that people in the National Center for Education Statistics want (something called Student Unit Record Data or SURDs). The Commissioner made the comment that in essence if we just had a record of every student in the country we would have milk and honey and would know everything we need to know about student success. Unfortunately for him, there are a lot of people who have looked at this massive federalization of higher education and think it is a lousy idea. The issues of cost, and privacy and alternative uses are just a few of the reasons why this turkey should never fly - but the Commissioner felt compelled to throw in his pitch for it.

In that first afternoon I participated in a panel with a pair of researchers from Indiana's highly rated higher education program. They presented a very good review of the literature on what improves the chances for student success. In one sense the answers are apparent - students who are more involved (fulltime, and involved in campus activities) and who have a sense of belonging are more likely to complete their studies than those who do not. Also, students who do not have worries about money (adequate financial aid) and who come to campus well prepared are likely to finish. I was on the panel with the new president of Tennessee State, who is also an economist. There were no fireworks here and a pretty broad concensus about the correct direction of the research. Part of the problem we face is that increasingly students come less well prepared and less committed to attending fulltime. In my mind higher education can help increase chances for success by controlling its own environment - which means encouraging ways to bring students into the life of the campus by offering key courses in the first and last year and offering a lot of activities but also in mentoring students through the process. On the outside they need to figure out how to be deeply involved with their public schools and also to be strong advocates for financial aid.

Yesterday, we heard from Margaret Spellings, the Secretary of Education. It was a controlled experiment in communication. Spellings created a national commission on higher education, that among other things supported the SURD idea. (I wish I could think of an A and a B for the beginning of that acronym because then it would correctly point out the nature of the idea.) I say controlled because the Secretary was only willing to come in at the end of the lunch. She spoke and then answered only a set of filtered questions. Even with that, which was recorded by C-Span, she dodged some of the issues. I am increasingly impatient with public officials who are unwilling to engage. The Spellings Commission has some ideas that need to be tested but that will not happen without a direct involvement by the principals like the Secretary of Education. The whole event made me think about how wrong it had been to create a federal department. But that is a genie that will never go back in the box.

Spellings again repeated the argument that one cannot get the same kind of "consumer" information about higher education that you can get when buying a car. That is a great sound bite but untrue. In the middle of the summer when I first heard of her making the claim, I went online and in about two minutes found tons of information about colleges in a particular area. Spellings claims that what she wants is surety about final price for higher education (you cannot get that for cars either because ultimately when buying a car there are many prices) and the same thing for admissions (in this case part of the process of choosing higher education requires the college or university to make a choice about you. Last time I checked car dealers do not review qualifications for car buyers beyond their credit. Similarly, while a buyer of a car can see the sticker price before you plunk down dough - the final price remains hidden until you negotiate. In the college situation - most colleges give prospective buyers a pretty good understanding of financial aid - and thus anyone with a reasonable amount of energy and intelligence can get a pretty good estimate of final cost. So the analogy is a false one.

Higher education is a complex set of institutions - those who use it come to us with differing motives and backgrounds. No wonder it is complicated. One size does not fit all. But in Spellings' notion one size does fit all. I am increasingly tired of people who want to excessively simplify. It is especially troubling with this "public" official because she thinks engagement on issues is in set up events.

What was most interesting about this conference was the depth of activity on the issues of student success. There is a lot of activity trying to figure out ways to assure higher levels of success. And as you would expect when there are vast differences in the types of institutions, there are also some distinct and vibrant threads developing that respond to the specific differences in types of students and institutions. In Spellings' vision, one size fits all. That certainly is the notion of No Child Left Behind - the act that currently controls elementary and secondary education. That probably does not work for K-12 and it certainly will not work for higher education.

1 comment:

Tulip said...

It always interests me that you and I are both hearing a lot about how to achieve student success-but from such very different perspectives. And probably neither of us is hearing answerd that really work.