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.