To Infinity and Beyond! Kevin Carey's Race to Over-the-Top

Ashley Thorne

This week Kevin Carey writes in “A ‘Race to the Top’” (subscription required, Chronicle of Higher Education) that President Obama’s project for K-12 school should have a higher ed counterpart.  

Kevin Carey is fast becoming a household name in higher education reform circles. Back in 2004 George Leef spotted Carey’s report for Education Trust, which argued that we need to push more students through to college graduation. Last September NAS considered Carey’s predictions about the impending rise of e-colleges, and this January we took note of his interview with Time Magazine, in which he called on state governments to hold colleges and universities accountable for graduating “a reasonable percentage of [their] students compared with other universities that have similar students.”  

Carey is policy director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank focused on education policy reform. Education Sector is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Lumina Foundation for Education, among other benefactors. Both the Carnegie Corporation and the Lumina Foundation are vigorous advocates of fulfilling President Obama’s goal to make the United States the most higher-educated nation in the world by 2020.  

Carey’s writing corresponds to this goal as well. In this week’s Chronicle article he outlines reform strategies for five areas of higher education: college readiness, college transfer, college learning, graduation rates, and career readiness. He places the words “Truth in” before each of these and, of course, such language appeals to us traditionalists. But let’s take a look at his ideas for reform.  

First, Carey recommends moving remedial education back from the beginning of college to the end of high school, by requiring states to test all high school juniors at the end of the school year for remedial placement. This sounds like a plausible improvement. Remedial education in college is a ludicrous waste of time and money. If a student does not possess the aptitude to do college-level work, he should not be admitted to college. Applying this simple rule would be a good way to cut college costs. Students who would like to go to college but who fall short academically should catch up before they matriculate.  This would better serve the students, who are often in danger of wasting time and money on a pursuit that isn’t right for them; better for the qualified students who should be spared wasting classroom time with under-prepared peers; and better for the colleges, which should focus on higher education, not hand-holding. 

While we agree with Carey that remediation should come before college, we’re a little puzzled by the format he proposes.  Testing high school juniors to discover—only then?—which ones cannot write a coherent essay, handle quadratic equations, or distinguish the War of the Roses from the Rose Bowl so that they can spend senior year attempting to reverse what they missed during the previous eleven seems futile. But perhaps a little more futility in high school is better than an expensive waste of time in college. 

Second, Carey points out that obstacles to transferring college credits from one college to another often prevent students from graduating and are another waste of time and money. Carey articulated this concern last week in a letter, cosigned by ACTA’s Anne Neal and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity’s Richard Vedder, to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. I have seen this problem firsthand among my classmates who transferred to my small liberal arts college and had to remain in college (and pay for tuition) for extra semesters and sometimes years because their credits did not transfer. So again, I agree with Carey in recognizing limited transferability as a barrier in higher education.  

But let’s be clear about the nature of this problem. It is created by colleges, not imposed by anyone else. It is a kind of trade barrier, although the colleges that enforce it often falsely claim that their accreditors make them do it, or state law ties their hands.  To the extent it makes any sense at all, it is a way for a college to assert that its home-grown courses are of higher quality, greater difficulty, or of more extra-special specificity than courses elsewhere.  Those claims might have validity in a few cases. Someone trying to transfer credits from Joe’s Barber College to Alfonse’s Academy of Tonsorial Studies might, for example, have to brush up his accent.    

Third, Carey [under]states what NAS and others are saying, “Pressure to increase college completion can have unintended consequences: Colleges might lower academic standards to push more students through.” That’s exactly right. As Peter Wood pointed out today, ballooning enrollments usually leads to erosion of quality: “The number of graded assignments dwindles; tests become mostly multiple choice and short answer; safeguards against cheating and plagiarism weaken; students who should be pushed are allowed to slack; professors fail to learn the names of every student, let alone every student’s characteristic strengths and weaknesses.”  

But Carey’s suggestion for ensuring that academic standards remain strong is to measure student learning outcomes: “every college should be required to submit annually a ‘public learning audit.’” While it is desirable for the public to know what colleges are actually teaching, we’ve found that the bureaucratic focus on student learning outcomes has unintended consequences in the direction of actually lowering academic standards.  Outcomes assessment encourages teachers to set the lowest possible goals for their classes so that, come assessment, they can prove that they have met those goals.  It also forces teachers to concentrate on aspects of their subjects that are easily measurable, rather than intrinsically important. (See “Seat Time at the AAC&U” for more on the outcomes assessment movement). So while Carey has the right instinct for what will happen to higher education shaped by Obama’s goal, the safeguard he proposes is the wrong one. 

Fourth, he advises that states mail graduation rates for every institution to all students in eighth grade or higher. In his interview with Time, Carey argued that graduation rates are a significant measure of a college’s success. Higher graduation rates (at least, comparable to universities of similar size) are almost always a good sign—although he conceded that Harvard’s 98% is perhaps too high—“I’m pretty sure you’d have to shoot somebody not to graduate from Harvard.” But does a high graduation rate generally signify a job well done? It could also point to grade inflation and relaxed academic standards. We have recently seen Toyota get into trouble with quality standards for attempting to scale up production too quickly.  Creating higher graduation rates shouldn’t be hard if colleges are nudged to a rule of “everyone passes.”   

Carey adds that “states should publish the total number of degrees and credentials that each institution will need to produce in every year from 2011 to 2020 in order to contribute their share of meeting President Obama's college completion goal.” While I’m not sure how those reports would benefit prospective college students, I’d be interested to see those numbers. In “Cold Brine: The College Board Loses Its Senses,” we at NAS tried our hand at calculating the necessary expansion. In short, Obama’s goal requires roughly a doubling of American higher education as we now know it. We believe that while indeed, America is falling behind the rest of the world academically, the solution lies in improving the quality, not the quantity, of education. 

The term “share of meeting President Obama's college completion goal” is a bit ominous.  Colleges don’t have any legal obligation to balloon themselves into an unmanageable and educationally destructive size just because President Obama thinks that is a nifty idea.  Making them report on the number of degrees awarded is a subtle tactic of intimidation, especially as we approach the era of “direct loans,” in which the federal government will have the power to decide who will and who won’t get the necessary financing to attend college, and colleges and universities will be more than ever on the DOE’s leash for eligibility to participate in the program. 

Lastly, Carey elevates “career readiness” as the end of higher education, and he says states should “publicly report work-force outcomes for individual colleges and universities...one, three, five, 10, and 20 years after students leave college.” Perhaps it’s old-fashioned of me, but I wonder whether how college graduates would feel about being monitored so closely. And while earning a higher income is the reason why more and more people go to college (although it’s common knowledge that post-graduation earnings often don’t increase with the possession of a degree), it shouldn’t be the primary gauge of educational success. Nor should it be the only reason to go to college in the first place. As Diane Auer Jones wrote last week, “I am not against vocational training, but we should be honest about the fact that vocational training, even if it takes place on a college campus, is not the same thing as a higher education.”  

These five points were meant by Carey as criteria for theoretical “Race to the Top” funds in higher education. In evaluating his reasoning, we take our cue from one commenter who wrote: 

Also, lurking here as usual is Carey's assumption that learning accountability is monodirectional—only the school, never the students. I'd be more amenable to Carey's Foucauldian demands for documentation and oversight if universities could also submit the How Often Students Blew Off Class Matrix, the Plagiarism Index, and the Yearly Report on Never Doing the Reading. 

It’s true, accountability goes both ways, but academic responsibility has become more elusive than ever. While we agree with Carey in several respects including his points on remedial education and course transfer, we don’t think a deluge of federal spending is the way to reform higher education. Trying to measure everything students learn, engorging classrooms to pump up graduation rates, and considering college as mere vocational training will only degenerate the intellectual heritage we bequeath to the next generation.  

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