Getting Beyond Headlines

Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Data is powerful, and today's colleges and universities are learning that lesson the hard way.  As increasing amounts of information regarding their student outcomes become available, media outlets are taking advantage, running stories like this one, 11 Public Universities with the Worst Graduation Rates.  The clear intent is shame and disinvestment in public education, and it's working. One of my very talented and knowledgeable colleagues shared that story on Facebook, writing "Is there any way to understand these completion rates other than dismal?"

That's a good question. What I appreciate most about it is that it asks how we can understand it?  Not, "who is to blame?"  Too often that seems to be the goal of publishing numbers, as if the old adage about sunshine being a miracle cure would actually apply to problems involving human beings.

As I flipped through the slide show of the "11 Worst," looking at the often pretty campuses of those failing public universities, I was simultaneously struck by how normal they appear, and also how much like community colleges they really are. At Southern University of New Orleans, the average SAT score is 715, and that's after rejecting 52% of applicants. It's not much higher at Texas Southern (796) where they accept just 36% of students. Clearly there are plenty of students in these local areas seeking access without strong test abilities, which hardly makes them unqualified, but may mean they seek a 4-year degree rather than an associates.  Like community colleges, these universities are also incredibly diverse institutions-- for the most part, 50% or more of their students are on Pell--many times higher than at most publics.  But in three key ways, these "poor performers" are unlike their 2-year counterparts: (1) Their cost of attendance is much higher, (2) They mainly do not offer short-term degrees, so all success is measured relative to the BA, and (3) They are universities, not colleges, so most appear to be trying to do more than undergraduate teaching (i.e. also granting master's degrees).  If community colleges had those characteristics, I'd expect their completion rates to approximate those of these universities (take out all certificate and associates degree completions, raise costs, and throw in a large pool of students whose apparent degree ambitions are misaligned with their tested ability along with competition for resources from graduate education).

But wait, there's more. If you look beyond the headline, and wander over to College Insight for some more data, you'll also discover the real challenge these broad access universities face -- an utter lack of financial aid.  At Coppin State, just 5% of undergraduates have their demonstrated financial need met.  At Southern University in New Orleans, among full-time freshmen just 4% receive any state grants (compared to 48% statewide), and just 1% receive any institutional grants (compared to 23% statewide).  93% of students enrolled there are African-American (compared to 27% statewide), and many families appear to be turning down loans.  Something similar is happening at Cameron University, where the rate of loan-taking is half that of the statewide average.  Clearly, these institutions aren't forcing students to take on debt to finance institutional costs, as the for-profits are accused of doing. Isn't this a good thing? And yet, how do you succeed in college without enough money?

There you have it-- a much more complicated problem, too difficult for an easy headline. Yes, there are some harder-to-explain cases, like Kent State at East Liverpool, but overall even as they are faced with the condition of being dependent on public funding, these "poor performers" are serving large numbers of low-income students who apparently desire bachelor's degrees despite low tested abilities, have to charge tuition according to the inadequate state appropriations provided, and have little in the way of financial aid to offer other than loans, which are frequently declined.  And we are surprised when their outcomes don't look good?

If anything, it's we who ought to be ashamed.  State taxpayers have publicly supported the opening of these institutions and then starved them.  I'm all for 'no excuses' but that stance applies to institutions for whom being open is optional-– the for-profits.  Public institutions are democratic, we collectively create them to meet our needs, and we therefore hold collective responsibility for their success.

These are problems that should be fixed, and can be fixed because these are public institutions.  The troubled for-profits, we have far less say about (as we learned yesterday) and that's a shame, since far too many students wander into their traps without knowing that there's almost no public accountability for their behaviors.

Of course, I realize some people will view all of this as further evidence that the public system doesn't work, can't work, and that we ought to just shut these schools down and go home. To do so is to refute the naton's history, to forget the many revitalized public institutions that are succeeding now in ways they never did previously because of a renewed focus, commitment, and corresponding investment.  We have fabulous cities and public services in places that decades ago less optimistic people abandoned, while others stayed and fought for change.

The solutions for these public universities won't come from waving our hands about their bad outcomes, but from public outrage about the appalling trap we are creating for the people who work in these places and the students they educate.  We have not provided them with the conditions for success, which we increasingly reserve for public flagships.   Instead of shaking our heads in anger or disgust, we should get busy putting our priorities and investments in order, taking care of our public institutions so they can succeed in meeting our needs.