Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Is "transparency" the solution?

There is a good exchange at The Quick and the Ed about transparency, information, and the quality of higher education. On one side is the libertarian Neal McCluskey who argues that higher ed would be better off with less government interference and expenditure. Less government would lead to greater freedom, which would lead to greater innovation, McCluskey argues.

On the other are several authors arguing that cost will only go down if consumers have more information, colleges are more transparent, and the federal government sets the standards to which schools must respond.

The debate thus becomes the typical regulation vs. freedom set-to that pops up in American politics all the time.

Sometimes these debates are useful. This time, I think not. Here are the reasons why (based almost entirely on my experience in the past year, working on improving learning and reducing cost, while helping my daughter select a college):
1. in spite of liberal hopes to the contrary, information alone does very little to help people make good decisions. If anything, there is too much information, not too little.

2. parents and students generally have access to the information they use to make decisions about higher ed. A tiny bit of it is related to colleges (tuition, fees, access to financial aid, academic programs), but most of it has to do with the dynamics of the family--can we afford this school? do we have any connections there? do we feel comfortable sending our child to that school? does the school seem like a good fit with our values?

3. that limited information is probably fine, since the variation in student engagement and learning is bigger within a school than between schools. In other words, a student can have a great experience at nearly any school, and a great experience at Salt Lake Community College is often better than a lousy experience at Harvard.

4. there is no evidence that more information about what colleges spend their money on, or about rankings, or about student learning in general, drives parent decision making or cost containment at an institution.

5. responses to cost are driven instead by internal factors--the predilections of the leadership, the influence of the faculty, the value placed on innovation, and the types of information about the future that flow into the institution. So if more info is needed by anyone, it is not the public but instead college presidents, provosts, and faculty who are in a position to make changes with it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I've stumbled across your blog (it is very dry -- in a good way! :)) I might agree that a great experience at Salt Lake Community College is better than a lousy one at Harvard, but you are still comparing apples and oranges. How about an average experience at Salt Lake Community College compared to an average experience at Harvard? Academically, Harvard wins out, I think. In terms of exposure to opportunities (of any kind, academic and otherwise) Harvard wins out big time.

I like what you say about cost vs. quality. At my own institution in the liberal Northeast, I am driven crazy by the incessant race to improve appearances and creature comforts (such as dorm rooms, parking, gym) in order to attract good applicants. Our PR is incredibly "successful." (Potemkin himself would be proud.) All this drives up the cost of college, without making a substantive contribution our students' education. It is a betrayal of our founder's mission, as well as of our mission statement (carefully crafted by our PR department)...