Thursday, March 1, 2012

Know Before You Owe!

By Keith McDowell

So how much does it really cost to go to college? Do you know? And what about all those headlines bemoaning the continuing – and some would say accelerating – growth in tuition at our institutions of higher education including community colleges? Are we rapidly making higher education accessible and available only to a privileged few? Are we truly cutting off and restricting the pipeline of talent and diversity needed to function as a nation in the 21st century of global competition?

Like many of our national leaders, President Barack Obama has taken up the cudgels for the many students heavily burdened by the debt and savaged by the rising cost of a college education. In a speech on January 27, 2012, at the University of Michigan, Obama said, “We should push colleges to do better. We should hold them accountable if they don’t.” And following in the footsteps of Richard Cordray, Director of the Consumer Finance Protection Board, and the person who coined the phrase “know before you owe,” Obama then stated that “today I’m also calling for a new report card for colleges.” Obama proposed to tie some forms of federal student-aid assistance for colleges to performance-based funding. But, of course, such a plan would only affect those students most in need of financial aid.  As always, the devil is in the details.

And not to be outdone by our political leaders, pundits and television-show hosts have also taken on the issue of the rising cost of a college education – most notably, Dylan Ratigan. For the record, I’m a fan of Ratigan and greatly enjoy the intelligent discourse in his daytime program, the quality of his guests, and the data-driven nature of his presentations. But on the issue of the rising cost of a college education, he gets a failing grade. He mostly rants with little factual basis and entertains guests who are clueless on the subject. One suspects it has to do with promoting the sale of his new book, Greedy Bastards – college administrators being one of his examples. 

In a clever twist of programming subterfuge coupled to a book-signing tour, Ratigan created a 30 Million Jobs Tour for the purpose of visiting regional innovation ecosystems and gee-whiz universities in order to tie together a number of innovation threads including how to get to the magic 30 million new jobs mark and the effect of the horrible job market on college graduates. It was well-done and informative except for one thing. He bashed colleges and universities – almost in the same gleeful spirit as Rich Santorum who equates colleges with liberal indoctrination mills and those who advocate for a college education with snobs. Ratigan currently has two main points: (1) colleges should invest in modern technology as well as group learning and team-playing modalities in order to become more effective and efficient for the purpose of driving down costs, and (2) colleges should be transparent in how tuition dollars are spent.

Ratigan’s first point requires an article all to itself but suffice it to say here that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Most of the high technology experiments that the author is aware of including ones that he personally participated in have cost a great deal of money, have been very time consuming and burdensome for the instructors – who wants to receive lots of emails or texts in the middle of the night, have often not been the choice of the students, and have mostly led to marginal improvement in student performance. There are notable exceptions, but one should always be wary of true-believers. They are often wrong. In the final analysis, I support continued experimentation and the use of high technology in education but with the usual caveat of it actually making a difference.

So what about Obama’s “report card” (in other words, accountability) and Ratigan’s transparency? To the casual observer who listens to the two of them, you would think we have neither accountability nor transparency. And what about the students on Ratigan’s show who don’t how their tuition dollar is spent? Whose fault is that? Is the information lacking or are they just too lazy to find out? I’ll use my experience with The University of Texas System and its institutions to address these questions.

First, let’s deal with the specific issue of transparency in tuition and student input. At UT Austin, a student representative serves on the committee that sets changes in tuition while at UT System, a student regent serves on the Board of Regents. Furthermore, UT Austin hosts an information website on tuition including a link to how tuition is used and how it is coupled to the university budget. For inquiring minds who want the ultimate in detail, one need only download and peruse one of the Annual Financial Reports for the complete financial picture for the university.

With respect to accountability or the filing of a report card, UT System produces a massive annual accountability report as well as a more facile “Productivity Dashboard.” Both are available at the Info Center on the bottom of the home page of UT System and are loaded with data. And for those still not satisfied or sated with data, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board webpage has many links to a copious quantity of available data, especially as regards accountability. 

Dylan! Are you satisfied yet that the data on tuition, university finances, and accountability reporting are easily available to everyone and anyone via the Internet? Are you satisfied that there is no secret cabal bent on keeping the facts from the commoners? Folks, let’s be clear here. Transparency and accountability reporting are not the issues. If anything, we have overkill and data overload. The issue is that nobody actually reads this material and nobody really wants to address the fundamental issue of investment and support of higher education in America.

Of course, students, parents, regents, legislators, and plenty of other people would like to see a simplistic display of all these data, but that’s hard to do and many have tried. Let’s face it. Universities are a complex enterprise with many sources of revenue, many diverse restrictions on how the income is spent, and multiple tortured pathways from an income chart to an expenditure report.

My response and challenge to Dylan Ratigan, President Obama, and others who want to take colleges and universities behind the wood shed for a paddling is this: do your homework first, get the facts right, and then invite guests to your show who actually know something about university finances and university accountability. Peter McPherson, head of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, comes to mind.

An affordable and accessible college education, whether at community colleges, four-year colleges, or research universities, is essential for America to maintain a quality workforce in the 21st century and to remain globally competitive. As we collectively address the issue of the rising costs of a college education and its impact on our economy and our competitiveness, let’s deal from a deck stacked with the correct facts. As Cordray said, “know before you owe.”

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