Accounting for Accountability

I’m generally a supporter of President Obama. He’s far more capable than his critics allow and he’s working in an increasingly out of touch Washington environment peopled with extremists posing as populists. After all, when a variety of congressman spend the weekend telling their constituents they would impeach the president if they could simply find enough votes (evidence be damned!), we might as well kiss any hope of bi-partisanship goodbye.

But I have to say that I’m a little tired of political plans to reign in the costs of higher education spending that completely miss the real problems with higher education. President Obama plans to create a ranking system for America’s colleges and universities and “connect financial aid to school performance, support academic innovation and competition, and make college affordable.”


I’ll readily admit, as I’ve done before, that universities should not be held blameless. We are, according to the latest data, hoarding administrators the way your grandmother collects photos of her grand kids. For every professor we hire, we have brought 10 administrators and middle managers on board. Who needs a math professor when you can hire a Director of Outdoor Activities. (Why do outdoor activities need directing?) Too many universities have swallowed the kool-aid and jumped on the Student Services bandwagon that purports to help little Johnny “transition” from high school to college.

We used to call that growing up and we didn’t need 15 student service personnel to help.

But, it’s also worth noting that the meteoric rise in tuition is related to the equally quick collapse of state funding and increased accountability measures required by accreditors and legislators . At my university, we had to split our financial aid department and our scholarship department because the federal and state regulations have become so complex we need multiple experts for both offices. Doing so required hiring a Director, staff, and paying for dedicated office space. We have to hire a director of accountability to assess our assessment program. Departments are pulling faculty out of the classroom to collect data that shows we need more faculty in the classroom.

I’m not being sarcastic or ironic here.

And don’t get me started on the costs of admitting unprepared, unmotivated, and disengaged students because our meager state funding is partially tied to growth.

We should also note that part of the increased spending on student services is a direct response to legislative mandates to be more competitive. While it pains me to admit it, students visiting our campus are far more impressed with our climbing wall than our award winning faculty. At 18, a teacher is a teacher and everyone has award winning faculty. No place else has championship inter-mural teams, a 2-mile indoor track, and a 4 mile lazy river.

But, and I wish I could sit and have a beer with the President, you can’t create performance measures without admitting that the very nature of higher education is exclusive. We don’t call it higher ed because college profs are sitting around smoking doobies throughout the day. For something to be higher, there must be something lower. As a culture, we can agree that all children have a right to a basic public education. We might not agree what to teach or how, but we do see grades 1-12 as essential and key to American culture.

Higher education goes beyond such an idea. The very idea of earning an higher degree depends on imagining the university as a privileged place one chooses.

In other words, states and the federal government mandate grades 1-12, but everything beyond that is a choice.

So perhaps, as we debate (yet again) how to reform higher education, we might consider creating accountability measures that focus on the people choosing to further their education. In other words, let’s at least acknowledge that the person most accountable for college completion is the student.

Again, I’ll not hold universities harmless here and we certainly can reform certain things we do, but accountability measures must start with the most important actor in the equation. At my fantasy beer-meeting with the president, I’ll propose we create a system for high school graduates that provides the first semester at any public university for free. If, after that first semester the student decides college isn’t for him or her, she can walk away with no debt and no strings attached.

However, if the student agrees to remain in school all federal financial aid comes with performance demands that match or exceed the performance demands we place on universities and professors. Stop attending class, refuse to go to the tutoring center after low test grades, never ask for help–you begin forfeiting your right to federal financial aid, including subsidized and un-subsidized loans. In what other world would a bank (or even your rich uncle) continue to loan money to a high risk, low reward venture? Yet, in higher education we keep letting under-performing students borrow money.

Most importantly, if the university can document your disinterest, the university isn’t punished.

Such a plan would open the doors wide and provide instant access to universities across the nation for every high school student. Most importantly, such a plan would force students to commit and would hold them accountable for effort and desire. I’ll bet, quite frankly, that the savings on the back end (not loaning money or providing financial aid to students we know are unlikely to complete school) would more than pay for the front end costs.

Now, if we could just develop a performance plan for all those politicians designing performance plans.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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