• September 4, 2015

A 'Race to the Top'

Why We Need a 'Race to the Top' for Higher Education 1

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle

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close Why We Need a 'Race to the Top' for Higher Education 1

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle

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.


1. v8573254 - March 08, 2010 at 08:31 am

Two observations - - 1. No surprise that freshmen asked to take remediation courses say they are surprised. I doubt that few are truly surprised. 2. Yes, transfer should be a reltively smooth operation, particularly b/t a public community college and a public university in the same state. It was for me 45 years ago.

2. speterfreund - March 08, 2010 at 08:58 am

There would less mystery and deception regarding the transferability of credits from one college to another if the states--and perhaps the Fed as well--developed articulation templates that allowed a student to move from a two-year college to a four-year college (or from one four-year college to another) with little or no loss of credits. This can certainly be accomplished for popular majors such as education and business within state systems, and the privates that see themselves competing for students with that sector would likely follow.

3. mercy_otis_warren - March 08, 2010 at 09:24 am

So in other words, Mr. Carey, you're suggesting that colleges and universities implement a new layer of bureaucracy and expense. (Those yearly mailings to students and parents, and yearly audits and outcome reports, demand time, personnel, and money, after all.) In addition to the fact that the one thing most colleges and universities don't need, imo, is a raft of new non-faculty administration (I see it now: Dean of Accountability, Sub-Dean of Reporting Work-Force Outcomes, and on), where do you suggest this money comes from? My state university is tapped out enough already amid greater and greater budget cuts.

Also, lurking here as usual is Carey's assumption that learning accountability is monodirectional--only the school, never the students. I'd be more amenable to Carey's Foucauldian demands for documentation and oversight if universities could also submit the How Often Students Blew Off Class Matrix, the Plagiarism Index, and the Yearly Report on Never Doing the Reading.

4. spc09lib - March 08, 2010 at 10:17 am

Right on Mercy! I can see entire budgets spent on the "Public Learning Audit" and the truth in graduation rate report with a) no meaningful/understandable/comparable data reaching the student/parent and b)no student using the information because either they don't care (I'm going to XYZ University because...[none of inserted reasons having to do with education]), they don't know about or take the effort to get the information, or they cannot read and/or comprehend it (this makes the huge assumptionthat any of us will be able to get useful data from it).

5. kevincarey1 - March 08, 2010 at 11:30 am

Just to be clear, the column says that "States should mail an annual report to every student" not that colleges and universities should mail the reports.

6. kimbruce - March 08, 2010 at 12:51 pm

The problem with this as well as similar proposals is that what is easily measurable is not what is most relevant. Worse yet, schools will optimize on what is measured. This seems to be behind Diane Ravitch's recent turn against testing-based strategies embodied in programs like No Child Left Behind. To take one example, Carey's proposal to report "career readiness" proposes to "measure the success of college students in landing well-paying jobs in their fields of study." I personally would prefer to see more of our students taking relatively poorly paid jobs in public education than becoming Wall Street wizards, for example. Yet the institution would look worse if more Econ and CS majors, for example, became public school teachers. This is one of the many places where “softer” data (surveys on job satisfaction or the quality of preparation for the position compared to those graduating from other schools) would be more useful.

7. fruupp - March 12, 2010 at 03:00 am

Obama's "Race to the Top"--administered by his hatchet man Arne Duncan--is simply a more vicious version of Bush's "No Child Left Behind." Starve public education by cutting funding. Label underfunded schools "failures" and underpaid teachers "incompetent." Reward states for closing public schools and replace them with charter schools (whose "teachers" are hired after five weeks of "training"). And most importantly: break the teacher's union.

And Mr. Carey wants higher education to "join the race"?!

8. demery1 - March 12, 2010 at 09:43 am

So, if a student cannot be admitted to a selective public institution due to prior academic performance, they should be able to attend a non-selective community college and states should force state universities to pretend that the student has received equivalent preparation and instruction?

Transfer students have lower rates of academic achievement, persistence, and graduation from four year institutions, even when compared to students identified as at risk who enter 4 year institutions as first year students. Rafts of actual reseach make this clear.

Recommending actions for transfer that will weaken the ability to perform learning audits and reduce graduation rates seems liek a race to the bottom.

9. rchill - March 13, 2010 at 08:18 am

#5 - Kevincarey1: And just where do you think the state will get the information from to mail to every student? And where will they get the money to complile/publish/mail?
Once again, an article long on commentary and short on any real research/thought. If schools are given broad discretion on how to measure and report evidence of student learning....you have a fruitbowl and comparison is not possible. College A decided to assess with apples, College B with oranges, College C with kiwi - how do you compare? Higher education supplies the knowledge, how a student uses this knowledge in pursuit of a career is not the responsibility of the educational institution...so why compile the career readiness data? Getting the job, moving ahead in the career track is the responsibility of the student alone.
Do you ever give your columns to someone else to review? Might be a good idea....

10. anon1972 - March 15, 2010 at 10:01 am

"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."

This sentence is defensible ONLY if "the federal government" is being specifically held up as preferable to state governments (which are even more easily held hostage by ignorant ideologues who hate higher education on principle). Otherwise, I can pretty much guarantee that any sentence beginning "Most colleges would be better off if the federal government took a stronger role..." is false. Laughably so (if the stakes weren't so high, and the outlook so grim).

Kimbruce at #6 sums it up succinctly and eloquently: "The problem with this as well as similar proposals is that what is easily measurable is not what is most relevant."

11. jamesgpeck - March 15, 2010 at 10:23 am

Any action that depends on a government making rational decisions is unlikely to occur. This does seem like a buiness opportunity.

12. whistle_pig - March 15, 2010 at 10:55 am

Man, does this piece and the ensuing responses nail the nail's head.

Unfortunately, colleges and universities are central to a massive collusion that makes the military's conundrum of "don't ask, don't tell" look minor-leageish. As the stats of participation suggest, this is a monopoly crying for productivity and accountability.

Central to this problem is where virtually all the revenue generated through cash-cow students is dumped ...faculty persons. Those professors who used to be esteemed for teaching and conveying knowledge AND WISDOM. Those were truly the good old days. Today the faculty is swamped with people dying to be deemed "intellectuals" propped up by the security of life-time tenure that protects and promotes incompetence while effectively eliminating the diversity of thinking and ideas that it was intended to nurture and protect. (Whew! I need to come up for some air!)

Professors no longer are held accountable for actually TEACHING. Note: The commentary addresses "learning" but not this antiquated notion of "teaching" ...and being held really accountable for relating to students and being a major cog in their head and heart transformations. Oh yea, they get reviewed both formally and informally, but absent stalking their favorite coed, nothing really happens. No pedagogical remediation. No diminishing of last year's salary. No refunds given students because they had to listen to prof's liberal rants or their hatred of conservative Christians and/or men in general.

Campuses are collectively incredibly sick and ineffective places for generating genuinely open-minds. Why? Because that concept is so antiquated among a faculty that is so closed.

But the real problem w/ this piece in addressing campus malaise and failure? It focuses on the notion of TRUTH. Isn't that a silly idea to connote and connect with higher education!

13. anon1972 - March 16, 2010 at 09:04 am

No. 12, allow me to say on behalf of hardworking, self-sacrificing faculty members all over this country: eff you. The vast majority of us are working long, long hours on exactly this "TEACHING" that you so bemoan, and struggling to make ends meet on our very modest salaries. Why? Because we take seriously the vocation of helping young minds discover the intellectual world. How dare you impugn my work just because your political prejudices lie (as you imagine) in a different part of the spectrum from mine.

14. kmellendorf - March 16, 2010 at 10:13 am

The original document and No. 12 miss at least one important thing about college. College is to offer opportunity. Whether the students take the opportunities and what they do with them is their own business. If a student develops a personality during a college education that inspires joining the peace corps for a few years, then go for it. Colleges are not present to create hard-working high-salary citizens. Colleges are there to help students develop into whatever they deem correct for themselves. We provide an understanding of opportunities, access to the self-confidence to choose from these opportunities, and then ways to reach these opportunities. This is not meant to sound "romantic". When college students lose control of their own development, then colleges become nothing more than extensions of high schools. If this is the aim of such articles, then improve the high schools to better prepare the students for college!

15. kmellendorf - March 16, 2010 at 10:22 am

This is a comment regarding a truly uniform course-numbering system. Such a system assumes that all colleges and all sets of faculty teach the same sequence of courses. An introductory composition course is in an engineering college can be quite different from such a course in a liberal arts college. The needs of the students are different. The Illinois Articulation Initiative (IAI) is a useful method. Some colleges teach in three semesters what other colleges teach in two. This can involve factors such as the gifts of the teachers and the gifts of the students at a specific college. Teaching is not working an assembly line, using a uniform set of factories to take in a uniform set of materials and put out a uniform set of products. Most faculty and administrators understand this. It would seem that a growing number of people do not understand this.

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