An Oregon higher education commission has recommended reforms designed to allocate resources to public universities based on the number of students who graduate rather than the number who enroll. On one hand, rewarding output rather than input seems a better way to proceed but there are concerns that could undermine the effectiveness of any such initiative.
There are ways of enhancing graduation rates that undercut a major objective of higher education which is to facilitate economic mobility. We know there is a correlation between high school performance, scores on the SAT/ACT and performance at a college or university. Past performance is the better indicator but SAT/ACT provides additional helpful information and insights regarding the future. If the focus is on students who graduate, taking fewer at risk students will help increase the graduation rate. But there certainly is a cost involved in that strategy. Over the year, I have met more than a few students at multiple institutions, who have clearly outperformed their statistics. At the same time, if you look at every student in this at risk pool there are also many who do not outperform what is expected. Many of the students who outperform are students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds or from schools that did not provide the necessary level of preparation. I think there is merit on taking a chance on such students. Will an outcomes based system take this into consideration?
It is possible to develop a predicted graduation for students with varying levels of performance on standardized test and varying levels of high school performance. If a student outperforms the predicted graduation rate for students with his or her profile, that should be considered a plus even though the actual graduation rate may be below the overall average graduation rate.
Having an outcomes based measure also creates the risk that some institutions will lower standards to make sure the graduation rate justifies the resources allocated to the institution. I have confidence in the integrity of my colleagues in higher education but the temptation will clearly be there. Degree requirements can be watered down, grade inflation can happen. This is not a prediction but it certainly is a possibility.
I would never argue with the desirability of having a more outcomes centric model of measuring performance and ultimately allocating resources. All of us in higher education are sensitive to the need for outcomes assessment and I believe the growing importance of measuring outcomes has strengthened the education we provide. But unless the model for judging college or university performance is properly sophisticated we may damage opportunity and undercut the quality of the education provided.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.