The higher education accountability and assessment bandwagon got a lot heavier in 2010 with the Department of Education, foundations, think tanks, and other organizations pushing everything from higher college degree attainment to the adoption of common metrics to uniformly measure progress and success to even ideas like taking the faculty member out of the classroom altogether in the name of student success.
One stakeholder who still lacks an invite to join the brainstorming and discussions, yet is still expected to drive the wagon? The faculty. Our members believe that this dynamic should change, and we’ll tell you more in our final blog post in this series about what the AFT is doing to involve the voice of faculty in the national policy conversation. But first, let’s revisit what has come to pass in 2010. We’ll start out today with federal initiatives, and over the course of the week come back to What Should Count to read our accounts of foundation and think tank work, institutional responses, and related research and reports.
The Obama administration set the ball rolling in 2009 with the announcement of its college completion agenda for the nation to have the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. In the wake of this announcement, foundations, think tanks, associations and the like have rallied around the agenda with their own versions of completion goals and vague ideas of how to successfully get from A to Z, often skipping L,M,N,O and P.
In 2010, the administration continued its focus on higher education completion with two significant events. First, to comply with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the Department of Education established a Committee on Measures of Student Success, which is meeting over the course of 18 months to make recommendations to the Secretary about how help 2-year institutions meet the graduation rate disclosure requirements as outlined in the HEA. The committee comprises a diverse group of higher education policy experts and administrators, but is without a significant presence of faculty who spend most of their time in the classroom. The committee’s primary tasks are to look at a) the current federal graduation rate formula (and possibly recommending ways to improve the famously flawed formula), and b) recommending alternative measures of student success, which could include student learning outcomes and employment outcomes. AFT Higher Education has met with officials staffing this committee to provide resources and feedback from a faculty perspective, and looks forward to continued interaction with the committee during the remainder of its 18 months.
Second, the White House held the first-of-its-kind community college summit in October. Chaired by Dr. Jill Biden, an adjunct professor at Northern Virginia Community College, the summit brought together community colleges, business, philanthropy, federal and state policy leaders, and students (though few faculty were in attendance) to discuss how community colleges can help meet the job training and education needs of the nation’s evolving workforce, as well as the critical role these institutions play in achieving the President’s goal to lead the world with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. Sandra Schroeder, president of AFT Washington and AFT Vice President, was one of just a few faculty who took part in the summit and brought to the table AFT’s views about investing more in instructional staffing to spur student success and involving faculty in the development of policy relating to instruction, assessment and accountability.
Foundations and Associations’ Student Success Initiatives
The Lumina Foundation, now in its 10th year, has assets of more than $1 billion and is distributing them widely to promote their “Big Goal” which is to see 60 percent of the U.S. population hold a high-quality postsecondary degree and credentials by 2025.
In support of the Big Goal, Lumina has deployed a project called Tuning USA, which is described as faculty-led, discipline-specific discussions within several states that seek to articulate what a student should know and be able to do by graduation. The project has its roots in the work that has been done to increase transparency around what a degree represents for Europe’s Bologna Process. In 2010, Lumina continued their tuning work in Indiana, Minnesota, and Utah, working within six disciplines to guide teams of faculty members and student representatives to spell out expectations for graduates at every degree level. There has been mixed reaction to the tuning project; some faculty are wary of yet another accountability initiative that could be a fast-disappearing trend like many others of the past; other faculty do “appreciate the flexibility it offers for individual professors to adapt statewide learning goals to their specific courses.” The project also “prompts introspection that has led to greater clarity of purpose in the classroom.” And, perhaps most importantly, it has helped faculty to get out in front of accountability conversations.
Building on the work of Tuning USA, last year Lumina developed a first draft of a degree qualifications profile that lays out the competencies a student is expected to demonstrate for a degree to be awarded. This is a definition of the learning that a degree represents, regardless of discipline or major. The profile also provides a mechanism for defining what quality means and plots clear routes to post-graduate education and careers. In Lumina’s words, a degree profile—if adhered to—can be assurance for students, employers and other higher education stakeholders that a degree has value. We have initiated a dialog with Lumina about the work they are doing on completion and student success, and we look forward to continued collaboration around identifying and developing ways to more clearly insert the voice of faculty into the development and implementation of their initiatives.
The Gates Foundation was also actively involved in promoting their completion agenda this year. As with other organizations, Gates’ completion agenda has a “big goal”—to dramatically increase the number of students who graduate from high school ready for college and career and who go on to complete a postsecondary degree or certificate. In October, Gates unveiled their new Completion by Design initiative, which will provide competitive grants to groups of community colleges to devise and implement new approaches to making the college experience more responsive to today’s student. What this will effectively do is provide one-time-only funds to develop a robust student support infrastructure that serves a small cohort of students for a limited period of time – surely a recipe for success, but will it be a sustainable and scalable model?
Lynne Dodson, president of AFT Seattle Community Colleges, told On Campus that the Completion by Design “money is great,” especially as the colleges need to “backfill” 15 percent cuts from last year and deal with worse ones expected for this year. “We all already know what student achievement takes: small class sizes; helping students jump barriers, such as addressing the need for child care; setting up small cohorts of students who move together; providing lots of counseling and financial assistance. That’s what works, but it’s expensive,” she says. “more expensive than just sitting 45 students in a classroom.” The overarching concern is that grants also make more work for faculty, who usually must implement them and track results, Dodson adds. So in signing onto the project, the local union’s executive board wrote to the SCC chancellor and vice chancellor “to make sure that we had faculty involved right from the get-go,” she says. The letter outlined how faculty want to be involved—from securing release time, to identifying through their faculty senates who will be on the design team, to being considered to run the project, to getting a commitment for sustaining the work when the grant ends.”
Gates also funded, along with Lumina and others, the Complete College America project, announced in March and intended to focus on dramatically increasing the nation’s college completion rate through state policy change. The project aims to build “consensus for change among state leaders, higher education, and the national education policy community.” Stan Jones, who spent 30 years working on higher education issues as a legislator, gubernatorial adviser and commissioner of higher education in Indiana, heads the project. Their work will model their efforts in Tennessee,where Complete College America helped Gov. Phil Bredesen propel a measure through the state General Assembly that directs the state’s Board of Regents and Higher Education Commission to rewrite the higher education funding formula to emphasize credential completion over seat time, remove barriers to credit transfer among institutions, and create a community college system. As with other completion initiatives, we are troubled by the apparent lack of faculty inclusion in the development of this project.
The National Governors Association unveiled its own completion initiative, “Complete to Compete,” in July. The initiative included a set of common definitions and measures that they will commit their states to using to measure their performance both in showing educational progress and in achieving outcomes. The outcome metrics include degrees and certificates awarded, graduation rates, transfer rates, and time and credits to degree; the progress metrics include enrollment in remedial education, how students fare after they leave remedial education, success in first-year college courses, credit accumulation, retention rates, and course completion. The working group convened to develop the common college completion metrics includes policy experts, consultants, board members, researchers, chancellors and presidents, but only one rank-and-file faculty member.
Institutions’ Responses and Initiatives
Institutions have responded to the increased calls for accountability in a variety of ways and for some time. For example, due in part to the fact that the federal graduation rate is famously flawed, the University of Alaska Anchorage developed in 2008 an alternative measure of success by formulating its own graduation rate measure to include the remaining 95 percent of incoming students who don’t fit into the federal graduation rate formula that considers success to be graduation with a degree within six years. Instead of using that six-year metric, Anchorage increased the time to degree to 10 years after learning that 95 percent of its students do achieve degrees in that time frame. Part-time and transfer students are also included in the formula. Finally, Anchorage also tracks students’ goals, asking them questions upon entry that include “Did you transfer? Did you achieve a degree? Did you earn grades that qualify you to stay on track to achieve a degree?” Through tracking students’ goals, Anchorage comes up with two primary measures: one that finds that 34 percent of those admitted in the last 10-year cohort measure met their educational degree goal, and two, an additional 50 percent “made progress” toward a goal. This new metric allows Anchorage to look at subgroups in more meaningful ways and assess how those individuals are making progress and realizing success.
Last year, community colleges came together to sign off on a Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA), a new national accountability system for community colleges that will focus on evaluating learning outcomes and job training. Six community college leadership organizations signed off on a “Call to Action” in support of the VFA and also in support of a commitment to boost student completion rates by 50 percent over the next decade. Concerns erupted, however, that this call to action will add fuel to the fire for a voluntary national accountability system at the federal level, although AACC board chair Mary Spilde downplayed those concerns.
In November, a new alliance of college presidents came together as an offshoot of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability that formed in 2009. The Presidents Alliance, as it is known, includes 71 college and university presidents who have committed their institutions to stand up individually and publicly reveal what their institutions are doing to measure student learning and to commit them to regularly reporting on their forward progress. The alliance’s tool for demonstrating their institutions’ accountability is a database in which participating institutions show their progress on a series of commitments related to collecting, publicizing and using information about student learning outcomes, and describe the efforts they have undertaken so far. The New Leadership Alliance’s board includes no faculty members and the degree to which collaboration with classroom faculty took place on the development of their broad principles concerning setting educational goals, gathering evidence, communicating results, and the roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders around these issues is unclear.
Research and Reports
We maintain a webpage that lists related research and reports that pertain to student success; below you’ll find a few that we pulled because they highlight the intersection of faculty and student success.
- The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (commonly referred to as NILOA) frequently releases commissioned papers that examine contemporary issues and inform the academic community of the current state-of-the art of assessing learning outcomes in American higher education. One commissioned paper by Pat Hutchings of the Carnegie Foundation takes a hard look at the obstacles to faculty involvement in assessment design and puts forth six recommendations to change course on this front. See our blog post on the report.
- Also released by NILOA, “Connecting State Policies on Assessment with Institutional Assessment Activity,” examines the intersection of the NCHEMS study of state policies on assessment of student learning with theNILOA national survey of assessment activities at institutions of higher education. Not surprisingly, the findings suggest that state policy—acting directly or indirectly—can indeed influence what institutions do in the realm of assessing student learning outcomes. However, NILOA will explore two issues in particular down the road, thanks to this survey: (1) What learning outcomes are most pressing and relevant for institutional assessment efforts; and (2) How are or can assessment findings be used to improve student learning?
- The National Bureau of Economic Research released a study suggesting that the increase in time-to-degree for a bachelor’s degree is concentrated among students who enroll at less competitive four-year public institutions and at community colleges and that ultimately, if you want to decrease the time in which those students graduate, you need to give those students more resources in the form of money. For a full run-run down, see Inside Higher Ed’s article.
- In December, two University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers released a working paper looking at the relative costs and benefits of popular student success measures, such as reducing student-faculty ratios. What the researchers found, among other things, is that replacing adjuncts with full-time faculty may be a more effective way of boosting student success than by reducing class sizes. More outreach and student contact were also indicators of higher persistence rates.
The Work of AFT Higher Education
The year 2010 was a very busy one, as student success and accountability was one of AFT Higher Ed’s top priorities. We’ve seen vigorous (and well-funded) research, experimentation and policy development being undertaken in government, association and foundation circles. Most of it has been aimed at goals like putting into place a stronger skills orientation in higher education; ensuring that the higher education curriculum better meets projections of career and economic needs; increasing graduation and curbing dropouts; defining institutional and cross-institutional “outcomes” for higher education, both generically and in particular disciplines; re-making student assessment to reflect these goals; and then re-making institutional accountability requirements to reflect the “outputs” flowing from these changes.
One of the most striking characteristics of all this activity is that the voice of front-line faculty and staff members has been virtually absent. This is not entirely an accident or an oversight—faculty and staff have been seen by the enthusiasts of new accountability measures as resistant to change in general and to this agenda in particular because their values are seen as impediments to getting a new accountability agenda in place.
AFT and our members believe it is very important to have the voice of faculty and staff more central to the process of policymaking because the outcomes of these policy debates will affect our members, our students and our values in profound ways. We also believe it is important for all of us to make a conscious and concerted effort to change the methodology of the disinterested professor (and union) because it is totally inaccurate and does not help move the policy debate forward and, most importantly, does not help students.
The work that we have engaged in on this front in the past year has included:
- What Should Count Website
Launched in April, we developed this website to provide faculty and staff (as well as the general public) with news and information about the range of accountability and student success measures that are coming down the pike. The website includes a clearinghouse of information about accreditation standards, the major assessment and accountability mechanisms being proposed, state and international accountability systems, and a news section. We invite you to provide us with feedback, link to What Should Count from your blog or website, or pass the link to your colleagues.
- Engagement with Policymaking Community
AFT Higher Education has met with many key policymakers, foundations, think tanks, government officials, academics, accreditors and others involved in developing and promoting various measure of student success in the effort to express our concern that faculty are not included in these discussions, to learn more about these new directions and advocate for our members, and to become a voice in the national dialogue on these issues. Some of the organizations and individuals that we have met with include:
The Department of Education, The Lumina Foundation, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, The Education Trust, National Governors Association, Complete College America, Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, American Council on Education, State Higher Education Executive Officers, Council for Higher Education Accreditation, Tom Bailey, director, Community College Research Center at Teacher’s College, Trudy Banta, and Pat Hutchings.
- Engaging Students
During Fall 2010, we conducted a series of focus groups asking students what they feel they need the most by way of academic and other supports from higher education faculty and staff in order to succeed. What we have learned from these focus groups will enable us to better shape our own student success initiative around the needs of students.
- Developing a Policy Statement for Student Success and Assessment
The AFT aims to bring an indispensable voice—the faculty voice—to the public debate about creating, evaluating and accounting for college student success. In order to do this effectively, we are currently developing a policy statement that conveys the faculty perspective and what we believe are the essential elements that foster student success.
During the next year, we will continue to develop our student success initiative and you can learn more on this website about our work with policymakers, institutions, faculty, staff, and students.