Time to Measure Up

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute and EPI International

Every two years, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education releases its biennial report, “Measuring Up,” which documents the progress (or lack thereof) of states and the nation on an assortment of indicators, including college preparation, high school completion, college access, affordability, college completion, and ROI (returns on investment). The Center started doing this back in 2000, providing a unique and important series of data that informs policymakers about the state of, well, the states on education.

Unique about Measuring Up is that it provides grades to states on the various measures. And this is a point of contention; not everyone agrees with how data are applied to these measures. Interestingly, the states that do poorly on measures are the most vocal on these issues. Kind of like US News & World Report—everyone complains about them until they score in the top 25 or 100, then it becomes the anchor line in the alumni mailer.

Former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, the chair of National Center’s Board, notes in the report that the Measuring Up series consistently shows the strengths and weaknesses of our higher education system:

The core message of Measuring Up 2008 is that despite our historical successes in higher education, the preeminence of many of our colleges and universities, and some examples of improvement in this decade, our higher education performance is not commensurate with the current needs of our society and our economy.

This year, the National Center did two interesting things: first, they provided an international comparison to provide perspective for the findings; second, they conducted an analysis within each focus area of the number of states that did better or worse from the previous study.

With regard to international perspective, the report basically lays claim to the fact that the United States continues to fall in higher education measures compared to other nations. We’ve seen this before in our analysis of OECD and UNESCO data. Perhaps the most interesting chart provided in this year’s report is where the US stands in the percent adults with an associate’s degree or higher. In the 35-64 year age group, the US stands second, only to Canada, with 39 percent of its adults with a degree or certificate. But then the Center shows us the percent of 25-34 year olds with similar education status—also 39 percent. However, now we rank 10th instead of second, because other countries, like Norway, Belgium, Korea, and France, are moving ahead of the US. This is a solid trend we see throughout the education continuum.

On the net gain analysis, 34 states improved or stayed level on academic preparation this year. Most interesting in these analyses, 16 states declined. In participation, 7 states declined; Completion—2 states declined; and Affordability—all but 2 states declined.

During the press conference at the National Press Club in DC, Pat Callan, President of the National Center, reiterated a point I’ve made many times in this column, that we have a serious affordability issue in this nation, which will only leverage declines in the areas of access and completion over time. The international and net gain trends evidenced in this year’s report will only continue to decline over time if we don’t do something about college affordability. Dave Breneman, who chaired the National Advisory Group for the study, and who serves on EPI’s Board of Directors, noted that, besides the fact that higher education is “central to future economic progress,” a decade of Measuring Up pains a worrisome picture for the nation. In his comments, Breneman made the important and “ballsy” comment that our higher education leaders—presidents and CEOs, are silent in the conversation about college affordability. In fact, he noted that these leaders are more interested in raising tuition than worrying about affordability. Surely, this isn’t true for all. But I believe it is true for most. We’ve raised a cadre of higher education leadership that misses the point of it all. They are, first and foremost, rainmakers for philanthropic gifts, corporate financial injection, and federal government set asides. Yes, colleges and universities need those things, but the student is left behind in many cases, and the issue of affordability is pushed to the backburner in virtually ALL conversations in which these people are in the room. We wouldn’t want to upset them, I guess.

The Measuring Up report is especially troublesome given the economic times in which we live. Most states, if not all, will face deficits for the next few years. Most, if not all, will cut funds to higher education. In Virginia, Governor Kaine cut higher education this spring, only to follow it up with another 10 percent this fall. That’s more than a 15 percent cut (yes it is, if you compound it). At that level of cuts, there is no more simple cutting along budget lines—it requires staff cuts. In higher education, staff cuts are akin to a reduction in quality. So, we are reducing the quality of our higher education system at a time when we need it better and retooled for a competitive global economy.

On January 27-28, 2009, the Educational Policy Institute will host a National Capitol Summit on Education and the New Administration in Washington, DC to discuss these and related issues in education, from Pre-K to postsecondary studies. We won’t solve our problems, but it will be an interesting opportunity to talk with some of the leaders in these areas to get their perspective on what may or needs to happen in the next four years to get the US back on track.

Congratulations to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education for another excellent report. We all just wish it had better news.

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