Michigan State’s Dr. Donald Heller analyzes cost of university education, limits of trendy assessments.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
This is nothing new. Since the early 1980s, the list price of a college and university education has skyrocketed, even though the net price hasn’t gone up nearly as quickly as the “sticker price,” thanks to generous discounts that many students, parents and others are often unaware of.
The slower rate of net-price growth is the good news, said Dr. Donald Heller, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education. Heller spoke about the issues of higher-education affordability and accountability in a presentation to more than 100 students, faculty and visitors Feb. 17 in Marran Theater.
Heller pointed out that student debt, while troublesome, is less of a crisis than popularly imagined. When reporting on student loans, the media likes to trot out people who have borrowed upwards of $100,000 to finance an undergraduate education, but only 1 percent of college students borrow that much over the course of four years, Heller said. The norm is closer to $23,000.
But, according to Heller, there’s plenty of bad news too.
Though the rate of college attendance has increased across all economic strata, the rate of completion among financially needy college students remains low, said Heller, adding, “We still have significant gaps between rich and poor” in higher education.
What’s more, community college programs — almost by definition tailored to financially needy students — don’t often result in those students going on to earn a bachelor’s degree. Heller said that data show students are far more likely to get a four-year degree if they start at a four-year college in the first place, rather than transferring from a community college.
In addition to income, Heller said needy students face other barriers, such as a culture that doesn’t value school attendance and poor academic preparation among those who do attend school.
The point is echoed by Dr. Mary Coleman, dean of Lesley University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Reflecting upon the lecture, she told Lesley.edu, “More people are going to colleges and universities than ever before, but many are unprepared.” Preparing those students, she added, “is a worthy but expensive proposition.”
That’s one of the drivers of why higher education costs so much, and why many in the popular media are “hating on” universities, Heller said, employing the youth argot of disdain to comic effect.
But the reality is that “high-touch” programs that work with disadvantaged students early, and attempt to make up for years of deficits in learning and opportunity in a short period of time, are “damned expensive,” Heller said.
It’s understandable that if you’re paying handsomely for a product or commodity, you should expect a reasonable rate of return on your investment (ROI). Such is the thinking behind a host of “accountability” measures that have been rolled out in the last decade or so, from No Child Left Behind to President Barack Obama’s proposed ratings system for universities and colleges.
The problem with criticism of No Child Left Behind and similar proposals is that they tend to compel schools to “teach to the test,” ignoring or minimizing pedagogy and educational experiences that don’t necessarily equate to demonstrable proficiency in a specific assessment tool.
Heller said that an even larger problem exists with ROI measures for colleges and universities, like the one touted by the Obama administration, which would tie federal aid to the average salary earned by graduates of a given institution. Divorced from the question of whether a princely paycheck is the ultimate aim of education, Heller said the metric has a variety of “unintended consequences.”
In his field, tying learning to earning could lead schools of education to direct their students to more affluent suburban schools, which pay teachers more than the inner-city and poor rural districts that need highly skilled teachers the most.
Heller also showed that salary statistics can be misleading, as top universities — like the University of Virginia — can see their graduates’ average salary dwindle due to the variety of programs they offer. For instance, relatively low incomes earned by recent graduates in fields like biology keep Virginia’s flagship university’s average salary (just under $39,648) below the nearby, less selective average salary of George Mason University ($41,153).
However, University of Virginia’s top-earning graduates earn more than George Mason’s top earners ($60,300 on average vs. $58,924).
Heller said a close examination of the data shows that, when it comes to earning potential, “It doesn’t matter where you go, it’s what you major in when you get there.”
The Michigan State education dean also hinted that the data show the “Jeffersonian notion” of educating citizens, rather than preparing students for a high-earning profession — and setting program prices accordingly — might be a “quaint notion” as universities are pressured to prove their value proposition.
“His articulation of the issues was very clear and was supplemented very nicely by both raw data and trend data,” Lesley President Dr. Joseph Moore said.
Moore added that Heller deftly pointed out “the challenge facing the Obama administration in what I think (is its) inappropriate strategies to link up aid to graduates’ income.”
“If that ever happened,” Moore said, “that would lead to more financial barriers.”
Prior to his position at Michigan State, Dr. Heller served as Director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University. His research is in educational economics, public policy, and finance, with a primary focus on issues of college access and choice for low-income and minority students. He has consulted on higher education policy issues with university systems and policymaking organizations in several states, and has testified in front of Congressional committees, state legislatures, and in federal court cases as an expert witness.
You can find more information about Dr. Heller at http://education.msu.edu/dean or follow him on Twitter: @Donald_E_Heller/
Heller’s lecture was sponsored by the Friends of Lesley, a group of local and national education and business leaders, Lesley alumni and other supporters.
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