Thursday, December 07, 2017

What Gets Said, and What Goes Unsaid

I’m in Philadelphia at the annual conference of the MIddle States Commission on Higher Education, which is the regional accreditor for the mid-Atlantic states and Puerto Rico.  

It’s different from the League or the AACC conference in that it doesn’t focus particularly on community colleges.  It covers everything from community colleges to research universities, which means I sometimes get to hear presenters from other sectors of higher education.  And I can’t help but notice certain patterns.

The Thursday morning keynote was by Peter McPherson, the president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.  He addressed accountability in higher ed from the perspective of the group he represents.  Which is to say, it was odd.

He rightly called attention to the relative paucity of low-income students at some of the more prestigious universities, and also noted correctly that much of the issue around student loan defaults is really about dropouts.  By his statistics -- and I didn’t catch the source or the frame of reference -- the default rate for student loans among college dropouts is 24%, as opposed to 9% for graduates.  So far, so good.

But it was largely downhill from there.

His solution to the problem of elite campuses getting ever more elite was...drum roll...a Gates-funded program to increase the number of low-income students there.  

Nothing inherently wrong with that -- it’s a good thing, as far as it goes -- but it’s a boutique solution.  Those of us in the trenches on student success issues know that “boutique” is a dirty word.  If you want to make a significant and lasting change, you have to get at structure.  In this case, that would mean making it easier for community college students -- a much more demographically diverse group -- to carry their credits with them when they transfer.  

That would make a sustainable difference over the long term.  It would ratify community colleges as on-ramps to the higher echelons of higher education, as they were intended to be.  It wouldn’t even require grant money to keep going.  But it would involve political battles, both among institutions and within them.  

If he mentioned community colleges at all, I missed it.

To add insult to injury, he also endorsed “risk-adjusted assessment,” which would let elite institutions off the hook for much of what we have to do.  It’s annoying enough at that level -- Harvard gets a free ride while we have unfunded mandates -- but it would also enable the unfunded mandates to increase unchecked over time, since the elites who largely set the expectations wouldn’t have to meet them themselves.  It would be akin to Congress exempting itself from civil rights and sexual harassment rules.  How did that work out?

McPherson was speaking as a representative of research universities; I get that.  His suggestions made sense from that perspective.  But higher education isn’t just research universities.  Any serious discussion of class polarization in higher ed has to include community colleges.  Any serious discussion of accreditation or assessment has to recognize that putting the most expensive protocols on the least-well-funded institutions isn’t likely to lead anywhere good.  

The whole point of getting the sectors together, to my mind, is to enable a broader look at the entire higher ed ecosystem.  That involves acknowledging each component of the ecosystem.  Should the Ivies and state flagships have more students from the bottom half of the income distribution?  Absolutely!  Wherever might they find talented students from the bottom half who have shown the capacity to excel at college-level work?


Tomorrow Walter Bumphus, from the AACC, will keynote.  Here’s hoping for a needed corrective...