A 'Race to the Top'

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle

March 07, 2010

On January 27, President Obama stood before Congress and described the state of our union. When the time came to speak of education, he began by praising the Race to the Top program that was created by the vast federal economic-stimulus bill of 2009. "Instead of funding the status quo," he said, "we only invest in reform."

The audience applauded, and for good reason: Race to the Top is quickly becoming one of most successful federal education programs in memory. Governors and legislatures nationwide have been scrambling to put major school reforms in place, all in hopes of grabbing a piece of the $4.35-billion Race to the Top pie.

There is no Race to the Top for higher education. But there should be. While colleges and universities snared billions of dollars from the stimulus bill with virtually no strings attached, they got nothing like the support lavished on elementary and secondary education. Most colleges would be better off if the federal government took a stronger role in setting the national higher-education agenda and provided resources to match. Unfortunately, a small minority of well-off institutions is standing in the way.

The good news is that there is an immediate opportunity for all institutions of higher education to join the race. Congress is now working to reform the student-loan industry by taking tens of billions of dollars in subsidies away from for-profit lenders and using the money to boost Pell Grants, improve community colleges, and raise graduation rates. New support in those areas is crucial. But without state policy reforms to match, the nation will very likely fall short of President Obama's goal of regaining the international lead in college attainment by 2020.

Instead of simply doling out this new money to all comers, it should go only to colleges and universities in states that put in place the following five reforms:

Truth in college readiness. Three out of four high-school graduates go on to college. But nearly 30 percent of four-year students and 60 percent of those who attend community college are forced to take noncredit remedial courses because, despite their high-school diplomas, they lack basic skills in reading and math. For most students, news of their shortcomings is a shock. Remedial placement, usually determined by standardized tests taken in the months between leaving high school and starting college, is highly associated with an increased risk of dropping out.

States should be required to offer remedial placement exams to all high-school students, without charge, one year earlier, at the end of the 11th grade. That would give students the often-wasted 12th-grade year to catch up. The California State University system has administered such a policy with much success in recent years. States that have different remedial standards at different colleges and universities should simplify matters by applying the standards of their flagship public university statewide.

Truth in college transfer. A second major source of leakage from the college pipeline is the point of transfer between institutions. Students are increasingly mobile, assembling degrees with credits from multiple institutions. But transfer students often aren't told how many credits they can transfer until after they enroll in a new college. Institutional policies for accepting or rejecting transfer credits are often obscure, irrational, and idiosyncratic, forcing students to retake (and repay for) courses at an immense cost in time and money. Such friction serves as a drag on college completion.

States should require all public four-year institutions to accept a defined set of up to 60 credits earned by students at any public two-year college or other state university. States should also develop common course-numbering systems to reduce confusion for prospective transfer students. Finally, they should create Web-based course-transfer clearinghouses that would include all public institutions, and in which private and for-profit institutions could voluntarily participate.

Truth in college learning. Pressure to increase college completion can have unintended consequences: Colleges might lower academic standards to push more students through. To guard against that possibility, every college should be required to submit annually a "public learning audit" of the kind recently proposed by the president of Earlham College, Douglas C. Bennett. The audit would provide evidence of how much students are learning and detail the assessment strategies the college employs. Because colleges have diverse missions and student bodies, they should be given broad discretion to decide how best to measure and report evidence of student learning. But they would have to commit to reporting the evidence in a consistent, public, consumer-friendly format every year.

Truth in graduation rates. While all colleges are required to report detailed graduation-rate data to the federal government, that information rarely ends up in the hands of students, parents, and guidance counselors. States should mail an annual report to every student, beginning in the eighth grade and continuing through high school, detailing retention and graduation rates at every public, private, and for-profit institution in the state, broken down by students' race/ethnicity, gender, and family income. Further, since federal graduation-rate data include only students who enroll full time and graduate from their original institutions, states should also report graduation rates for part-time and transfer students. In addition, states should publish the total number of degrees and credentials that each institution will need to produce in every year from 2011 to 2020 in order to contribute their share of meeting President Obama's college completion goal.

Truth in career readiness. In the end, degrees are only a means to an end: fulfilling lives and careers. In recent years, states have, with federal assistance, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in "longitudinal data systems" that can potentially measure the success of college students in landing well-paying jobs in their fields of study. States should use that information to publicly report work-force outcomes for individual colleges and universities. The data should include the range of annual and hourly earnings, occupation type, industry of employment, and the net increase in earning power before and after attending college. The data should be reported one, three, five, 10, and 20 years after students leave college, categorized by student demographics. Only aggregate data for whole institutions would be reported. In accordance with existing federal privacy laws, individual student data would never be disclosed.

None of these suggested reforms would entangle the federal government in the business of deciding how colleges and universities should conduct their academic affairs. They would simply create badly needed openness in a sector that is often frustratingly opaque for students, parents, and policy makers alike.

Yet the Washington higher-education lobby is unlikely to embrace such reforms anytime soon. Its members have argued with great success over the years that any and all policies carrying even a hint of more federal oversight should be opposed.

But who, exactly, benefits from their hard-line position? Not institutions like Earlham, which have shown great success in teaching in a liberal-arts environment. Truth in learning would give them welcome credit for a job well done. Truth in transfer would help community colleges, which are often frustrated by arbitrary and capricious credit-acceptance policies. Truth in career readiness would give a leg up to institutions that are leading the field in guiding their graduates into promising careers. Truth in preparation and graduation would be a boon to the millions of parents and students struggling to prepare and pay for college.

The higher-education lobby's zealous resistance to any form of disclosure benefits only the elite institutions that already have plenty of money and receive the lion's share of federal financing. The hundreds of rank-and-file colleges and universities that would gladly provide more information about their successes in exchange for new federal support in a time of draconian state budget cuts are being left out in the cold.

If higher education is going to thrive in the future, it needs a solid base of federal financial support. In exchange for renewed investment in our crucial institutions of higher learning, the truth isn't too much to ask.

Kevin Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.