Wednesday, March 06, 2013


Signal Flares and Suicide Notes

Kevin Carey’s latest, a long piece on financial aid as an enabler of fiscal irresponsibility in elite higher education, is well worth the read.  But for everything in it, I’ve been stewing on a single paragraph for the last few days:

The limitations of accreditation have added to the incentives for state disinvestment in higher education.  Education leaders protest each round of recession-driven cuts by predicting that academic quality will suffer.  But they have no evidence to demonstrate that this is so.  Disinvestment has been a wonderful free lunch for irresponsible state lawmakers: They can pull money out of public colleges with near impunity because nobody can prove they are wrong.

Yes and no.  

Let’s say that you’re the president of a public college, and your college somehow has developed a really robust outcomes assessment protocol.  And let’s say that you’ve absorbed a host of funding cuts over the last few years, with the prospect of more on the horizon.  Just to make things interesting, let’s say that your robust outcomes assessment protocols have shown, clearly, that actual harm has been done to student learning by the last few cuts.

What do you do with that information?

In a rational world, you would use the evidence of harm to drum up support to fix the problem.  The decline in outcomes would be a signal flare, and would result in help arriving post-haste.

But this isn’t a rational world.  

In the world that actually exists, a president who went public with “our programs are circling the drain!” would be cashiered in short order, and rightly so.  The signal flare would be read as a self-fulfilling suicide note.

That’s true for several reasons.

First, it’s far too easy to blame failure on the first responders, rather than the folks who started the fire.  There’s an entire political discourse that presents public austerity as a form of moral fiber.  Given the fatalism with which many people talk about education anyway, it would be far too easy to take decline as an invitation to put a struggling college out of its misery.

Second, the sheer “man bites dog” nature of a college admitting vulnerability would give the story outsize attention, the kind that’s hard to undo.  Even if the college managed subsequently to turn things around, the public’s memory would be of the problem.  

Third, private donors like to contribute to success.  They like to be a part of something.  If a college seems to be sucking wind, it will lose access to the very resources that could have helped.  That’s why the suicide note would be self-fulfilling.  

And that doesn’t even begin to address the on-campus political battles that would ensue if a president publicly declared that a few of its programs just weren’t getting the job done.  

While there’s a strong political upside to invoking the possibility of future harm, there’s almost no upside to public discussions of actual harm.  (On-campus discussions, yes.  They can spur improvement.  I’m referring here to public discussions.)   Over time, of course, that can lead to a skepticism about the college that cried wolf.  But the wolf is really there.  It’s just that it’s not in anybody’s short-term interest to admit it.

OTOH, the president who did this would be doing the right thing.

Depends on what programs or functions are affected by the cuts. Early on, cuts might affect programs that were weak to begin with, to the point where outcomes were not affected (or were even improved, institution-wide). If cuts took the form of not admitting under-prepared students, outcomes would likewise not be affected adversely. And of course once tuition goes up and/or loan burdens increase, that's exactly what happens. But, there would be no incentive to announce the results of the cuts because that would lead to further cuts that really would damage outcomes.
So why is it so hard to get state legislators on campus?
I wonder to what extent this issue of self-fulfilling prophecies is predicated on there being only 1 college having the public discussion. What if all colleges in an area published all the same data and outcomes, and overlapped state funding on those parameters? Would these self-fulfilling suicide note arguments still stand if everyone were doing them? It would change the nature of the conversation from a college to a system, and hopefully that would be a productive use of time.

@Becca: legislators are drawn to photo ops and voters. Campuses offer neither, bar a new building being built. Students either don't vote or can't vote on campus, so they don't substantially influence an election, depriving an elected official of having a convincing reason to visit a campus. In my province, the only legislators who talk about postsecondary education are those with the relevant portfolio and those whose kids are about to enter a post-secondary institution.
YES. This is the bunker mentality that also surrounds K-12 education and has resulted in the current system, so ill-funded that it is babysitting at best and a prison at worst.

Is it actually true that state legislatures are "disinvesting" in higher ed? I know that the percentage of support that comes from the state has been declining for a long time (I think my flagship state U gets 15% of its operating funds from the state). But is this a matter of contributions actually declining, or of the schools budgets increasing so much that the percentages are declining, with the actual money staying the same or increasing slightly? The situations are, I think, quite different.

@GradStudent: there is a lot of interest in higher education in my state, primarily because every legislator has constituents who send their kids to colleges in the state. More than half of the state budget (55%) goes for education. It is kind of a big deal for most legislators.
Community College students do vote in local elections. Worse faculty and staff do also. The latter can be a large percentage of people in small areas or large ones with large schools.
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