Georgia Higher Ed Comes up Short on Transparency Test

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, Editor, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

A new national higher education report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says universities and technical colleges nationwide fail to provide the basic information students need to make entry level decisions, they do not adequately track academic success, too often they are not accountable for failure and very few have any idea what happens to students after they leave the classroom.

The Georgia section is a mixed bag with some positive thoughts about higher education online learning here but significant criticism about university and technical college system consumer information transparency and accountability.  The report is the first emphasis on higher education since the U.S. Chamber began this series with K-12 public education reports in 2007 and 2009.

“Right now we have no measure of the quality of a college education,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).  Hess was among several education policy scholars who researched and wrote “Leaders and Laggards” that was released Tuesday by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce at the U.S. Chamber.

“Most of these conversations floating across the landscape today deal with degree completion because we know how to measure degree completion,” Hess said during a panel discussion broadcast on the internet.  “We have remarkably little sense of how similar degree completion is from Institution A to Institution B.  That’s a conversation we’ve barely started to have.” 

Frederick Hess, American Enterprise Institute

Hess and two co-author panelists said four-year university and two-year technical college systems should be able to answer basic questions such as, what happens to students after they leave the classroom; do they get and keep jobs; are they employable in those same fields five years later; did the academic programs they studied have an application in the real world?

“Currently we have this strange phenomenon where there’s a lot of information available (about) the performance of K-12 public schools (but with) almost 6,000 higher education schools there’s almost no information,” said co-author Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

“We need better measurement in higher education of almost everything,” said American Enterprise Institute research fellow and co-author Andrew Kelly.  “We need to be able to aggregate data across the various functions of an institution in ways that we can’t currently do.  That’s the key, measurement coupled with transparency, making data available in public.”

The Institute for a Competitive Workforce used publicly available data and information received from four-and-two-year state systems to evaluate performance in six sectors: student access and success; efficiency and cost effectiveness; meeting labor market demand; transparency and accountability; policy environment and innovation.  Thenational report card is a collection of mostly low scores with lots of “D” and “F” grades, not a voice of confidence from the Chamber.

Georgia results are mixed. The state was graded at the top for efficiency and cost effectiveness in the technical college system and also for overall online learning innovation.  None of the nine other categories received higher than a “B” grade and Georgia was graded near the bottom for consumer information transparency and accountability in both the two-year technical college (F grade) and four-year university systems (D grade).

The Chamber said, “Georgia receives below average scores for its consumer information and public accountability resources.  The state does not track student labor market outcomes.”  The state was criticized for a policy that will not allow students to transfer general credits from a two-year school to a four-year school if they change majors. The Chamber also noted Georgia does not have outcomes-based funding.  The University System of Georgia did not have a spokesman available on Tuesday.  Click here to read more complete data on Georgia.

Discussion about transparency and accountability dominated the panel conversation to almost the exclusion of other topics.  Kelly from the American Enterprise Institute noted, “If we had the data to measure how many of your Pell Grant recipients graduate within six years that’s what we would have used here, but we don’t.  The fact that we don’t know that is a travesty.”

Grover Whitehurst, Brookings Institution

Whitehurst from the Brookings Institution created the analogy of a student trying to decide which nursing program to select.  “We’d like to know whether a particular program actually gets its students to the finish line, whether students who get to the finish line are employed and how much money they make.  These seem to be reasonable questions to ask.

“Short of buying a home an investment in higher education is the biggest investment that any family will make,” Whitehurst said.  “If states would empower prospective students and their families to shop (for higher education) with at least as much information as they have when they are choosing a restaurant or a used car that would be a wonderful change.”

Hess from the American Enterprise Institute challenged state legislators to “really call the heads of these public systems to account, grilling them, what are you doing to get information out there, what are our investments in transparency, what are we reporting, and how can you demonstrate to us that we are spending dollars wisely.  The tiny number of times that anybody in institutions really appears to be challenged or pushed is, I think, problematic.”

Click here to read the Institute for a Competitive Workforce report introduction and click here to read recommendations.   Click here for a 50-state national map with links to state information.

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