Be Careful What You Measure

One of the more frustrating aspects of writing about higher education is the bizarre lack of measurable data about what colleges actually produce. People, after all, go to school to learn. Doesn’t it make sense for us to have some idea how much smarter people get in college?

Perhaps. And so now there’s a push from some quarters to measure collegiate outcomes. One of the more popular policy ideas is to measure and assess schools based value-added assessments, how much extra students learn in the time they’re in school. The idea seems reasonable, but it probably won’t work.

David Brooks today offers a compelling, though ultimately misguided, push for value added assessments. As he writes he writes

This is an unstable situation. At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.

One part of the solution is found in three little words: value-added assessments. Colleges have to test more to find out how they’re doing.

There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t. There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they’re doing in comparison with their peers.

There are two problems with this idea. First, value-added assessments of collegiate learning don’t really measure what people what to know about college. Second, there’s no way an assessment, even if it’s wonderful, would do much to make college cheaper.

The biggest value-add in higher education isn’t provided by America’s fanciest colleges. It’s community colleges, which start off with really low scoring students and turn them into reasonably well educated people, that win here. Princeton, or the University of Missouri, start off with reasonably well educated people and turn them into then reasonably well educated people with a slightly more sophisticated understanding of the way the world works and a few more crucial skills that might be useful for getting a job. Those are really important things; that’s why people go to college.

But the added value, the learning gains, of Raritan Valley Community College are going to be much higher than the learning gains at Princeton. Is Raritan Valley a better school?

Now, it would be perhaps be useful to know which colleges do a really great job with low performing students and which don’t, but once we start to look at any somewhat selective schools, all of this information is going to be kind of negligible, and more a function of student effort and the types of classes than the institutions themselves. Does that mean they’re not valuable? No, this doesn’t mean such schools are worthless; it’s just that value-added assessments aren’t very good at measuring what they do well.

Furthermore, the value added component here doesn’t address the real problem Brooks presents: college is too expensive. As I’ve pointed out before, the reason people go to college is because it’s become essential to obtaining a professional job. As trends are moving now in American labor, that credential will continue to be essential, no matter how high tuition goes.

The college bubble is often compared to the real estate bubble, so let’s use a real estate analogy. If I want to buy a house as an investment it would perhaps be best to buy a reasonably cheap house in an up-and-coming neighborhood. And so it would make sense to have information about demographic trends in various neighborhoods and real estate trends in the city where I live, not to mention the structural integrity of the house and what improvements I might have to make

This information is certainly valuable, but if I earn $25,000 a year and have no savings, it’s all irrelevant, because I can’t afford to buy a house. The policy we want to move toward in higher education is one where more people, to extend this analogy, own their own houses. The way to do this (think of the country in the aftermath of World War II) is to build cheap housing and heavily subsidize that housing so that more people can afford it. Providing more information about things people can’t afford doesn’t make it cheaper.

I commend Books for making the point about learning, and for suggesting that colleges should make some effort to demonstrate their effectiveness, but this just won’t have the effect he would like it to.

It might not matter though. While measuring effectiveness might seem like a good way to monitor and improve higher education, that might not really be the point.

Many states are now working on efforts to monitor and sanction colleges based on their “effectiveness”; most of these efforts to get college to prove their worth is driven not by a desire to improve education, but just to cut costs. Or to find a reason for states to use to justify taking money away.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer