Because I work for a
for-profit institution, I was naturally a little sensitive to the recent Senate
hearings on the sector. As with everything in Washington, it was apparent that
the deck chairs were arranged in advance and agendas were very clear cut. What
was supposed to be fact finding came off looking eerily like an inquisition.
Now am I saying that there aren't bad for-profit institutions? Sure there are. And there are also lots of bad traditional universities as well. Recognizing this fact and not lumping everyone into the same basket is what our elected officials need to be aware of if they want to truly act in an equitable manner and help students become successful. But how can this be accomplished when we rely on 30 second soundbites to make high stakes decisions about the future of education?
Interestingly, I found the solution as I was combing through coverage of the hearings. Specifically, comments by Senators Harkin and Durbin establish the challenge that I believe is necessary for ensuring that the best possible education is obtained by all learners. Sen. Tom Harkin, said the hearings would aim to "ensure that students are actually getting the knowledge and skills they need to pay off the debt."
In his remarks to the National Press Club, Sen. Dick Durbin said:
"By the way, I think we ought to have better outcome data from all colleges and universities that receive federal aid, not just for-profit institutions. The American people have a right to know what their tax dollars are paying for, and the government has a responsibility to make sure those tax dollars are well-spent. For that, you need real numbers."
In my last blog posting I commented on how the pharmaceutical industry, credit card companies, Amazon, etc. deal with extremely large data sets on a daily basis to understand patterns and trends. As such, the methodological precedents are firmly in place and awaiting an influx of data from institutions of higher education to meet Sen.Durbin's call for real numbers. So what are we waiting for?
Certainly there is an array of valid and reliable measures such as Transparency By Design, Quality Matters, the National Survey of Student Engagement, IPEDS, the CoI Framework, etc. already in place; we don't need committees to take years to develop new instruments. We can combine this data with all of the information that is currently stored in institutional databases such as retention numbers, demographics, financial aid profiles and registrar records; the quantitative analysis would provide a very compelling case for which institutions were truly fulfilling their mission and which were simply conduits for financial aid and other funding sources (i.e. parenal savings accounts and students hard earned money).
Diving down another level,
effective semantic analysis is no longer theoretical. The knowledge management
literature abounds with use cases and recently a team I worked with won
Sloan-C's Effective Practice Award for Semantic
Mapping of Learning Assets across our School of Business. Using this
technology, we are one step away from aggregating all of the work completed by
students and faculty to create institution-wide semantic maps that illustrate
the learning that is occurring.
In short, the methodology and technology exist to “ensure that students are actually getting the knowledge and skills they need." Granted, facilitating this level of analysis would require a very high level of cooperation between institutions and significant funding, however, if it is truly the national priority that was proclaimed in the recent hearings, then the means to execute such an initiative should exist. While I am an eternal cynic, when it comes to politics, I think this time our politicians were right. Real and meaningful data is what is needed, so let higher education (for-profit, public and private) give the Senators what they want. The only reason not to is if Higher Education is truly frightened of being held accountable.