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Graduation rates make poor measure of education levels

In September, Gov. John Kasich gathered the presidents of Ohio’s public universities and tasked them with determining how the state’s aid would be distributed. Kasich asked the group, headed by Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee, to base their funding ideas and bonuses on graduation rates and told them to consider privatizing projects to cut costs.

A month later, the presidents returned with a proposal to tie 50 percent, up from 20, of the roughly $1.2 billion of state funding to the number of students graduated in the past three years.
There’s only one problem: graduation rates make a poor measure of how well a school educates its students and should not be emphasized for something as crucial as state funding.
When a university rushes students into school and out into the workforce the quality of education is inevitably diminished. According to 2011 Census data, 30.4 percent of American adults have earned their bachelor’s degree and according to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, only 38.9 percent of those obtaining degrees finish in four years – so what is the hurry?
In an essay titled “How Undergraduate Education Became College Lite” Murray Sperber, English professor at Indiana University at Bloomington, blames a “non-aggression pact” among students, professors and administrations. Students are unlikely to complain about easier, watered-down classes and the inflated grades that go along with them. Given the option, professors are often happy to pursue ventures beyond grading student papers. Since university administrators are not held accountable to improving graduates’ skills and knowledge they are just as unlikely as the students and professors to break the cycle. Instead, schools are more likely to gain prestige for non-academic factors like selectivity, size, and football team ranking.
Nowhere are non-academic factors more celebrated than in the US News and World Report’s “Best Colleges” ranking – the most popular annual ranking of higher education institutions. The list’s appeal is simple. US News boils a complex landscape of diverse institutions down into an easily digested numbered order. The result is a big scoreboard that’s easy on the eyes but flawed from the start.
Education researchers Patrick Terenzini and Ernest Pascarella concluded in “How College Affects Students,” an analysis of 2,600 studies on the title topic, that traditional measurements, including some used in the US News calculation, are poor at measuring institutional quality:
“After taking into account the characteristics, abilities and backgrounds students bring with them to college, we found that how much students grow or change has only inconsistent and, perhaps in a practical sense, trivial relationships with such traditional measures of institutional “quality” as educational expenditures per student, student/faculty ratios, faculty salaries, percentage of faculty with the highest degree in their field, faculty research productivity, size of the library, (or) admissions selectivity.”
Even Robert Morse and Sam Flanigan, co-authors of the list, introduced the 2012 batch with a bit of skepticism:
“The intangibles that make up the college experience can’t be measured by a series of data points. But for families concerned with finding the best academic value for their money, the 2013 edition of the US News’ ‘Best Colleges’ rankings provides an excellent starting point for the college search.”
So the US News rankings aren’t much to go off. Maybe that was already obvious to some – but a look at the list of “high points,” our “select accomplishments and points of pride” published on Ohio State’s website, shows that we put our US News rankings front and center. Graduate and undergraduate. Wexner Medical Center, too. 

OSU’s apparent pride in these contested rankings is easy to brush off as a necessary move to promote school pride, but we really should run in the opposite direction. The escape will not be easy either – last year, state funds made up 9.3 percent of OSU’s income according to Ohio State’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning. Such a big chunk left hanging in the balance means the administration will strain to meet the graduation rates encouraged by Kasich and drafted by the university presidents.

This will surely mean renewed competition for what most consider the best incoming freshman – those with big entrance exam scores and a high class rank. It is likely the university will reach their goal in this way but these surface factors still fail to evaluate the quality of instruction happening on campus.
If a heart surgeon started operating on healthier hearts each year, wouldn’t he see an improvement in his ratio of successful operations automatically? Of course, but that increase would say nothing as to whether the surgeon has changed at all in his abilities. The same goes for professors. If each incoming class is made up of more prepared, “better” students, then it says nothing about the quality of instruction even if the graduation rate goes up. Another measurement must be established to increase transparency.

Today’s students need assurance that their school will do its job. College is expensive and cost of tuition continues to rise faster than that of gasoline. Gasoline, at least is guaranteed to power cars. An education from OSU needs to carry just as strong of a voucher. But that goal will be impossible to reach if our administration and lawmakers fail to work together and evaluate universities only on their academic merit. 


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