When is Higher Education Too Expensive?
Reflecting on the State of the Union and the New College Scorecard

by David C. Paris

Like most State of the Union addresses, President Obama?s recent speech was a kind of all-encompassing list of initiatives and supportive anecdotes wrapped in a mix of self-congratulation, criticism of opponents, and appeals to our shared national interests.  It reiterated the now familiar linkage of education and economic growth, ?higher education is an economic imperative.?

For the higher education community, however, the thing that drew the most attention was a vague threat about affordability, ?When kids do graduate, the most daunting challenge can be the cost of college.  . . Of course, it?s not enough for us to increase student aid. We can?t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we?ll run out of money.. . . So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can?t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.?

There was no specific proposal for how the administration might follow through on this threat.  However, a week after the speech the White House unveiled a proposed the College Scorecard that would be added to the College Affordability and Transparency Center?s web site).  Presumably, by making even more information available about costs and return on investing in higher education, including future earnings potential, parents and students could make better judgments about what affordable and sensible.  Better informed consumers would presumably provide some counter pressure against rising costs, and if not, the regulatory option is still on the table.

It?s hard to argue against greater transparency.  Certainly good information about the first three categories (net price, graduation rate, and successful repayment rates) will be valuable for parents and students to have.  Likewise, student loan debt, though unavailable at this point, would support more informed choices.  The earnings potential category is far more dubious, as it suggests that a college or university that produces lots of teachers is somehow not as good an investment as one that produces hedge fund managers.  It would be far better to simply record the percentages of those who succeeded in obtaining employment or entering graduate education than looking at earnings.

More important, this dollars and cents/emphasis on economics that is more and more dominating the rhetoric and discussion about higher education does not consider the quality of education or even recognize that quality matters. 

A friend of mine recently penned a line that I wish I had written and wish even more that the President had said in his speech, ?A bad education is expensive no matter how much you reduce the price.?  If we imagine that we could simply snap our fingers, and the cost of college became more affordable, we would certainly relieve the financial burdens students and families face.  But what benefit would our economy and our society reap from producing more, less costly degrees if those degrees aren?t preparing students to be productive workers and responsible citizens?

The limited evidence we have suggests that such gains would be small or nonexistent.  Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, showed that a substantial proportion of students graduate without any significant growth in critical thinking.  Other studies have reached similar conclusions.  And these results have consequences for the workplace.  A recent report published by Public Agenda states that, in employers? view, ?graduates lack basic and interpersonal skills.?

And, as Kevin Carey recently reported in the Chonricle of Higher Education, ?the news gets worse and worse?.  In the recently published follow up to Academically Adrift, the researchers document that the students in their study who grew in terms of their skills fared well after graduation. ?The associations found between educational experiences and life-course outcomes (such as employment, financial status, and civic engagement), further reinforce an appreciation of the importance of college academic achievement and performance.?  Students who scored better were much more likely to be employed, independent, and less in debt.

Quality matters.  If we want to encourage greater transparency in the interest of promoting better choices in investing in higher education, shouldn?t we also be encouraging greater transparency about the quality of learning?  If a quality degree leads to better economic and personal outcomes, shouldn?t we be as concerned about quality as we are about price and volume?  We certainly need greater transparency, to keep ?score,? but we need to make sure we keep score about what?s important.


February 2012
Reflections on Issues, Efforts, and Experiences
Occidental College
Current Industry Articles and Reports
Globe University and Minnesota School of Business

Reflections on Issues, Efforts, and Experiences 

Curricular and Co-Curricular Collaborations to Facilitate General Education Outcomes

by Marilee J. Bresciani and Megan Oakleaf

This essay seeks to illustrate the concepts that faculty and co-curricular professionals can explore when partnering to design, reinforce, and evaluate general learning. 

Curricular and Co-Curricular Collaborations
When designing general education learning opportunities, faculty are frequently unaware of the numerous co-curricular learning opportunities in which student learning can be transferred to a new setting, reinforced, and evaluated.  Indeed, general education can be better taught and assessed when faculty and co-curricular professionals collaborate to design and deliver learning opportunities.  In fact, when the curricular and co-curricular reinforce the same general education outcomes, the transferability of student learning can be evaluated well before students graduate.

Understanding Campus Values
Both faculty and co-curricular professionals need to understand what general education outcomes their institutional leadership wants for students to achieve and how their campus colleagues conceptualize and design student learning opportunities.  Armed with this knowledge, faculty can remind students that general learning outcomes are not only applicable in the classroom, but also can and should be transferred to other environments.  At the same time, co-curricular professionals can design co-curricular learning opportunities to reinforce and evaluate the general learning outcomes learned in the classroom. 

Being Intentional & Systematic
When faculty and co-curricular professionals design specific learning opportunities, they should articulate outcomes that align with at least one general education outcome.  In addition, once faculty or co-curricular professionals use outcomes to conceptualize learning opportunities, they should also intentionally and systematically design learning activities and implement them via the learning opportunity.  This intentional and systematic approach is essential because learning does not just happen; it must be facilitated (King, 2003; Kuh et al., 2005; Bresciani et. al., 2010). 

Evaluating the Learning
Both faculty and co-curricular professionals should evaluate the learning when they first expect it to occur (perhaps in a disciplinary curriculum) and then again later to see how well it has transferred (perhaps in the co-curriculum).  Indeed, the notion of facilitating learning?evaluating where it is first taught and later where it is reinforced and transferred to a different environment?is the epitome of the co-curricular-disciplinary partnership.  Such collaborative design and reinforcement of learning serves both the students and the overarching institution as it seeks to systematically demonstrate the value of its general education offerings. 

Acting in Alignment with Values
Both faculty and co-curricular professionals must intentionally design and evaluate the opportunities to improve student learning (King, 2003; Kuh et al., 2005; Bresciani et. al., 2010).  Many general education learning opportunities are not designed and delivered as intentionally and systematically throughout the student experience as they might be.  However, unless faculty and co-curricular professionals collaborate to intentionally and systematically design, facilitate, and reinforce general education learning based on evaluative feedback, higher education cannot demonstrate the value of general education.

By applying these concepts, faculty and co-curricular professionals can learn to intentionally and systematically design, deliver, and facilitate learning.  More importantly, they can engender general education learning in students that is transferable on campus and beyond. 

Marilee J. Bresciani, Ph.D,  is Professor, Postsecondary Education at San Diego State University.
Megan Oakleaf, M.L.S., Ph.D., is Assistant Professor, School of Information Studies at Syracuse University.


Bresciani, M. J., Gardner, M. M., & Hickmott, J. (2010). Demonstrating student success in student affairs.  Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

King, P.M. (2003). Student Learning in Higher Education. In Komives, S.R., Woodard, D. B. & Associates. Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession, 4th Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Kuh, G.D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.H., & Whitt, E.J. (2005). Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Occidental College 

Occidental College, a top-tier liberal arts college, combines a rigorous academic program with an interdisciplinary, hands-on approach to the liberal arts in order to challenge students to develop a wide range of skills. The mission of the College is to provide its students with a total educational experience of the highest quality.  This mission is anchored by four cornerstones (equity, service, campus community, and excellence), the last focusing on their unflagging commitment to provide a truly superior academic experience for students.      

Occidental College established a formal assessment program for its degree-granting programs approximately ten years ago.  The office of Institutional Research, Assessment, and Planning has played a key role in training and support for assessment planning, designing direct outcomes-based assessments, and qualitative research for all faculty and staff involved in assessment activities.  Occidental College is committed to its system of academic assessment that includes learning outcomes and assessment plans for each program.  Programs report assessment findings to the dean of the college on an annual basis, and undergo a formal program review every five to seven years.

In an effort to assess the effectiveness of its program review process, Occidental College recently completed a ?Metareview? project.  According to Brian Harlan, Assistant Dean for Academic Assessment & Planning, the Metareview involved an assessment of departmental assessment plans, annual assessment reports, self studies, and external reviewer reports using local rubrics, and follow up with a focus group and a faculty survey.  Harlan recently presented on Occidental?s metareview process and findings at the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education?s (AALHE) 2011 Annual Conference.  Rubrics and other materials for his session, Metareview: Assessing the Quality of Your Program Review System, may be accessed by contacting him at . 

In addition to the assessment of academic programs, Occidental College's Student Affairs and Academic Affairs were involved in a collaborative project to develop an assessment program for 15 academic-support units. Through the support of the Teagle Foundation, Occidental completed the three year Academic Support Assessment Project this year by establishing an ongoing outcomes-based assessment and program review process for these units.

Through participation in the Presidents? Alliance, Occidental College believes it can easily and effectively share information regarding its assessment initiatives in a public, transparent manner.  In addition, the college has found value in learning about the sound practices and good ideas of other institutions through participation in the Alliance.  Harlan shared that making a public commitment to significantly improve assessment of, and accountability for, student learning outcomes at the college ?keeps us focused on our commitment to assessment for learning?.

Learn more about how this institution is committed to improving student learning outcomes assessment by viewing their Presidents' Alliance Action Plan.

Current Industry Articles and Reports 

The Association of American Colleges and Universities Fall/Winter issue of Peer Review explores various ways in which different kinds of colleges and universities are using the VALUE rubrics to assess student learning in and across courses and programs.

Jonathan Zimmerman asks the question, Are College Students Learning?  in his Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times.

Kevin Carey writes, "Higher education needs a much broader examination of how and whether it succeeds in educating students." in his Chronicle of Higher Education Commentary,  'Academically Adrift': The News Gets Worse and Worse.

In Inside Higher Education's news story, An Academic Expletive, Mitch Smith writes about that dreaded noun assessment, how many agree there should be more stringent measurement of student learning, and how to convey that need to reluctant faculty.

The American Historical Association (AHA) has announced that it will begin to identify what a student should know and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program.

A new report, Hiring and Higher Education, from Public Agenda and commissioned by the Committee for Economic Development (CED), "suggests that they [corporate executives] believe the challenges of cost, quality and accountability present great threats to the nation?s economic prospects.

Globe University and Minnesota School of Business 

The Presidents' Alliance for Excellence in Student Learning and Accountability welcomes Globe University and Minnesota School of Business as its 98th and 99th members! Learn more about how these institutions are committed to improving student learning by viewing thier Action Plans on the Alliance's website.

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