I had a great discussion recently with Deans about aspects of our strategic planning. They, and some of their faculty, grew legitimately concerned that in our enthusiasm for growth and innovation we did not place enough emphasis on the quality of our outcomes. I do think the reminder is salutary, though I don’t think it actually contradicts what’s intended. Research “of consequence” has to be quality work. New learning approaches aim at, and should be measured in terms of, quality. We want quality global operations. Our projected growth, which is not in fact much more rapid than what we’ve achieved over the past decade, does not assume a drop in student quality. So again, I don’t think there’s a fundamental issue, but I personally agree that we need to make our commitment here clearer. We’ll work on it, or at least so I assume.
Which brings me to the political climate over which, obviously, we have less control. President Obama’s new initiative puts some of us in an awkward position, and I’m not qualified to comment on all of it anyway. We risk seeming more defensive than we actually are. I do not object to reasonable pressure to keep cost increases moderate. I think Mason would actually do quite well in the ratings he proposes – our costs are relatively low (arguably, a bit too low in one category) and our jobs outcomes are excellent.
There are many really good elements in the Obama approach overall. Higher education clearly needs to take a broader look at competency assessment. Even more broadly, the opportunity to think about ratings that do not mindlessly reward the richest and most exclusive universities, toward a wider recognition of educational value, is truly important.
But I have at least three worries. First of course is the potential reporting requirement, which extends recent additions by the feds. It’s not easy to get jobs outcomes, and there are real costs, and potential constraints, in new reporting mechanisms. And the feds do not have the reputation of being easy or responsive masters.
Second involves state funding. The President correctly notes the decline in state funding, but it’s not clear that he intends to do anything about it. Yet without some creativity here, the whole plan risks seeming hollow – or, more likely, comes back to pressure on the universities alone, caught with reduced funds and now additional federal oversight and misleading criticisms about spending excesses. (Remember: actual spending per student at state universities has gone up very little; it’s the sources that have changed. This doesn’t mean there’s no problem, but it does mean the problem is complex.)
Then there’s the issue of quality. Maybe there are some ways that a place like Mason can trim, and we have the obligation regularly to check on this. But too much funding constraint will show up in the quality of outcomes. Frankly, the nation has a stake in three things: more degrees; restraint on financial burdens to students; but also the quality of education. While job placement may measure quality to an extent, it’s an inadequate approach. We know that, at least for now, the jobs most readily available depend not only on a pretty good education, but on education in fields like STEM, where the cost of education is actually higher than the overall average. It seems to me that any reasonable approach to education that does not address the quality issue is ultimately suspect – yet the noun too often just drops out of the vocabulary on the part of leaders who would like to talk their way out of complexity.
So, for those of us trying to help lead higher education, let’s be creative and open to serious change, let’s pay attention to student access and affordability, but let’s also make sure that we, and our educational offerings, are good. And lest, again, this all seem merely defensive, a competitive reminder: our international colleagues are not merely expanding higher education but are investing increasingly in quality of product; it makes no sense to risk moving in the opposite direction.