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Last week, the U.S. Department of Education convened two panels of various experts to discuss ways that the government can increase accountability and transparency at colleges around the country. But the rhetoric of the plan they developed sounds eerily similar to that used in discussing K-12 education plans, which have served as justification for cutting funds from “underperforming” schools. Like the No Child Left Behind Act, this plan is being pitched as an improvement in efficiency and accountability, and a boon to parents, students, lawmakers and taxpayers.
The panel brought in people such as Richard Jerue, an executive at the for-profit Education Management Corporation, which operates art and cooking schools. Jerue suggested that “quality and accountability” are ways to assure that tax dollars do not go to waste. Future plans to hold universities accountable for their spending would be tied to “Institutional Report Cards,” which would list “tangible information” such as job-placement rates, average starting salaries, graduate- and professional-school admission rates, passage rates for certification exams, and alumni/student satisfaction surveys. But this transparency and accountability could easily be used to shame schools for their spending.
It is unreasonable to think that the education quality or “value added” of a school can be quantified by future earnings and graduate school admissions. The purpose of higher education is to advance the search for knowledge—higher MCAT scores and larger starting salaries are not good indicators for this.
But linking funding for higher education to these quantifiable factors would hamper the pursuit of knowledge by forcing the school to alter its focus. These “Institutional Report Cards” would encourage colleges and universities to direct funding to departments and projects aimed at improving their institutional report card grades.
The university that places the most students in grad schools or high paying jobs is not necessarily the best university. Harvard, arguably one of the best universities in the world, devotes many resources to small and obscure departments that are important and worthy of funding even though they do not create as many future investment bankers as economics.
The Education Department’s unspecified accountability proposals for higher education might make it seem that President Bush is trying to improve higher education. But if his proposal for accountability is used to cut funds from schools that rank poorly, he will do no such thing. If Bush wanted to truly help American higher education, he could increase federal spending on state schools—especially at a time when state governors are being forced to cut university funding due to the slowing economy. To increase Americans’ access to education, Bush could ask Congress to spend more money on tax benefits to help low-income students afford college. There are many ways to improve education in this country, but Bush’s plan is not one of them.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress should recognize that the budgetary and spending practices of public universities are already transparent—their budgets are a matter of public record. Further centralization of state school budgets on the federal level would be wasteful—the bureaucracy needed to rank and quantify “Institutional Report Cards” distracts resources from more worthy efforts to improve education.
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