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Fuzzy Math, Flawed Logic

New accountability measures for public colleges should not be pegged to faulty statistics

By The Crimson Staff

A report on public college performance released last week by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (MBHE) illustrates the limitations of taking a statistical approach to educational accountability measures. But the most dire trend identified by the report—an undergraduate graduation rate of between 41 and 45 percent, far lower than the national average of 54 percent—is hardly surprising, considering the vicious beating public school budgets have taken in three successive years of funding cuts.

First called for in 1997 by the State Legislature, the quality standards measured in this first report are the product of seven years of thought and a new, $1.5-million database. Unfortunately, all this time and money didn’t produce wholly usable statistics. In its measurement of undergraduate six-year graduation rate, the report neglects to include transfer students, who can account for nearly one-third of a school’s population, according to Framingham State College President Helen Heineman. The real number may well be closer to the national average.

Other statistics contained in the report are not as ominous as they have been made out to be. The increase in graduate enrollment and master’s degrees and the 3 percent decline in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded are the results of outside factors, not some profound flaw in the public school system itself. Where state education officials denounce these figures as evidence that Massachusetts public colleges are over-emphasizing their more profitable graduate programs, the real explanation is economic. Business journals and newspapers across the country have been reporting rises in graduate school enrollment since the start of the economic downturn. A sour job market makes academia seem sweeter. And state funding cuts, which have caused some Massachusetts public colleges to reduce enrollment, are doubtless to blame for the reduction in undergraduate diplomas awarded.

Economic factors may also be to blame for the low six-year undergraduate graduation rate. With their budgets cut from $448.6 million to $367 million in the last two years, state colleges have had to raise tuition. The average in-state tuition is now $2,700, after an increase of 10.8 percent over the last year. Students at Framingham State College have seen their tuition costs balloon by nearly $1,000 just this year. This tuition explosion means more loans and longer work hours for students who want to graduate within six years. And for many students attending school in the nation’s sixth most expensive public system, it means no more college at all. Small wonder undergraduate graduation rates are down.

Numbers are a necessary way of measuring school performance. The MBHE has in many ways done an admirable job of surveying broad trends in its colleges and making practical recommendations. New statistical measurements designed to take into account surrounding communities when evaluating public colleges are especially welcome. However, before these numbers are ready to form the basis for accountability standards, key measuring techniques need to be tweaked. The MBHE must realize that certain statistics, like the low undergraduate graduation rate, may not measure school quality as well as they measure economic conditions. To address this issue, the Board should spend less on assessing its colleges and more on helping students afford them.

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