States’ Postsecondary Performance Records Graded in New Report

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In the ongoing push for more accountability and transparency in higher education, researchers released a new “report card” Tuesday that shows which states lead and trail on a variety of postsecondary measures.

Authors of the report – titled “Leaders & Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Postsecondary Education” – say while the data used to compile the report is lacking in many ways, the report is meant to illuminate how effectively states are spending public money on higher education, and what exactly taxpayers and employers are getting in return.

They say they believe by publishing more performance data, such as how well higher education is meeting labor market demand, that it will drive institutions of higher learning and the states that govern them to get better at what they do and to do so more efficiently.

“We think it’s incredibly important to think about how cost-effective your system is,” Andrew Kelly, lead researcher for the report and an education policy studies research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, or AEI, said during an overview of the report Tuesday at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at AEI and a contributor to the report, said states that got labeled as “laggards” in the report might become “leaders” if consumers and policymakers could compare systems on the basis of outcomes, such as completion rates and employment in their post-college lives.

“You like to know if students get to finish the line, whether the students who get to the finish line are employed,” Hess said. “I think the provision of that information would have a (transformative effect) on higher education.”

Hess stressed that the change he envisions is more likely to take place because the publishing of such data will make institutional leaders more conscious of their performance.

“I don’t think any of us are under any illusion that better information for students and families is going to lead to some sort of miraculous improvement,” Hess said. But if the information becomes available, he said, it will be easier for educational leaders to make improvements if they know their systems are being recognized and measured on various indicators.

The “Leaders and Laggards” report was produced by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, or ICW, a nonprofit affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that focuses on education and workforce issues.

It gives states “A” through “F” grades in six broad areas:

  • Student Access & Success (both at two-year and four-year colleges);
  • Efficiency & Cost Effectiveness (for this the report draws upon an aggregate cost per completion measure developed by
the Delta Cost Project);
  •  Meeting Labor Market Demand;
  • Transparency & Accountability;
  • Policy Environment; and
  • Innovation.

 

Though states got grades on these various outcomes, observers questioned whether certain socioeconomic factors might have played more of a role in which states performed well and which ones performed poorly.

For instance, Delaware got a “B” for student access and success, but only 16.7percent of Delaware students are Pell Grant recipients. That’s half the national average of 30.8 percent, and it’s significant because low-income status is considered a risk factor for dropping out of college.

The report’s answer to that issue is “risk-adjusted completion rates.”

“We developed a metric that measures each state’s graduation-rate performance after taking into account the percentage of first-time students that receive Pell Grants,” the report states. “This risk- adjusted metric essentially measures how far above or below the curve a college’s graduation rate is given how many Pell students it enrolls. We rewarded states whose postsecondary institutions performed better than expected on this measure.”

The report adds to the growing amount of research and online tools being made available to help the public and policymakers evaluate the cost and effectiveness of America’s colleges and universities.

For instance, last week the U.S. Department of Education new data on its College Affordability and Transparency Center, which shows institutions with the highest and lowest tuition and net price, as well as schools where prices are rising the fastest.

And earlier this year, the College Board released “The Completion Arch” to help the public and policy makers gauge community college success. As a product of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the ICW “Leaders and Laggards” report is also meant to bring the private sector into the discussion.

Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said he hoped the report would spur institutional and business leaders to take a look at ways to improve their systems, from reexamining how institutions are financed for enrollment instead of graduation to reviewing the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of remedial education.

Texas got a “C” in student access and success. It has a 39 percent rate for Pell Grant recipients – substantially higher than the 30.8 percent national average.

Hammond said he was less concerned with the impreciseness of the data and more focused on improving results.

“Let’s quit arguing about the preciseness of the data and talk about how to increase productivity,” Hammond said.

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