There are two important trends in higher education today. The first is that state legislatures are supporting public colleges less generously every year. The amount states provide per student has declined 22 percent in the last quarter century. The second trend is that states are demanding more information about college performance.

The first trend is unfortunate. The second, however, is generally something higher education critics like. More information can help drive better performance and influence reforms. The demand for more numbers, however, is creating a whole new point of antagonism between state legislatures and public colleges. That’s because the states tend to demand irrelevant or inappropriate data, and then use try to use that data to make important decisions about colleges. According to an article by Dan Berrett in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The impulse to rely on easily calculated measurements to judge a college’s worth often makes sense in the abstract, but it can work uniquely to the disadvantage of flagships, said Kenneth A. (Buzz) Shaw, a former head of Syracuse University, the University of Wisconsin system, and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, as well as of the SIU system. “The problem is not that we’re to have accountability measures,” said Mr. Shaw. “The problem is you can’t have one-size-fits-all.”

Presidents of flagships tend to get uncomfortable, for instance, when policy makers seek to evaluate campuses using simple metrics, like the amount of money colleges spend divided by the number of students they enroll. Flagships often maintain expensive research operations and doctoral programs that add to their expenses.

The real problem is that the information is only useful if the state makes a serious effort to collect and interpret meaningful data. And they don’t usually.

A recent report on Tennessee’s colleges and universities, for instance, demonstrated that “the University of Tennessee at Knoxville spends $41,000 per student, or about double what other institutions in the state system spend.” The same report indicated that an average graduate earns $36,732 upon graduation (ranking sixth among the state’s nine college). This makes it look like the school is “underperforming” and a horrible waste of money for the state, but those statistics are essentially meaningless.

Well of course the university spent more money than other public colleges in the state. It’s a large research institution. It’s supposed to spend more money than small state colleges. That $40,000 figure not only creates a false sense of catastrophe and waste for the legislature to obsess about, it also provides no meaningful information about the actual effectiveness of the school. Shouldn’t the state be comparing it to an analogous institution like, say, the University of Arkansas or the University of South Carolina?

Very few higher education administrations openly resist these evaluation measures, probably because that would make them seem out of touch and wasteful, but such evaluation policies often force them to go along with data collection that makes little intellectual sense from an educational perspective.

Witness Texas Governor Rick Perry’s efforts to reform his public college system by treating the institutions “like a business.” He proposed a public list of faculty members’ salaries and benefits, giving teaching awards based on student evaluations, and looking into the grade distributions of each professor.

These are metrics, of course, and it’s possible to use them to evaluate things, but none of the measures has anything to do with research discoveries or learning, which is the point of colleges.

State agencies are political entities, after all, and while their calls for efficiency and effectiveness may seem reasonable, they often seem to result in changes and discussions that make no sense from an education perspective.

The secret to doing this effectively, explained Jane Wellman, executive director of the National Association of System Heads, is to have agreed-upon standards that colleges and legislatures work on together.

That does make sense, in theory, but what’s the best strategy to actually make that happen?

According to the article many colleges find the idea of additional state evaluation particularly ironic, if not exasperating; why should the state be imposing more arbitrary rules? If it’s providing less money, shouldn’t it allow more autonomy? [Image via]

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