Accountability Plan for Higher Education Would Be a Mistake, Report Says

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The Bush administration's plan for imposing accountability measures--similar to those in the No Child Left Behind Act--on higher education is wrongheaded, according to a new report by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Lawrence N. Gold, the AFT's higher education director, said the report is not a response to any particular piece of legislation, but to the Bush administration having mentioned an interest in holding colleges and universities accountable for their graduation rates.

"I thought it was particularly pernicious," Gold said.

While the Bush administration hasn't formally released an accountability proposal, Gold said he has heard 'administration officials talk about higher education reforms in terms of No Child Left Behind.

The report, "Student Persistence in College: More Than Counting Caps and Gowns," says the Bush plan would be based on information collected under the Student Right to Know Act, which shows many schools having low graduation rates. The administration's solution, the report says, would be to reward schools with high graduation rates and penalize those with lower rates, particularly by cutting funds.

"Proponents of this argument contend that it mirrors the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which rewards or punishes PK-12 schools based on the performance of their students," the report says.

But the report suggests that the argument is flawed for several reasons--particularly because calculating graduation rates is such tricky business. Graduation rates calculated under the SRK Act don't account for part-time students, transfer students, or those taking courses in non-degree granting programs.

"The SRK measure also fails to take into account the Fact that students increasingly tend not to stay in the same place, doing the same thing, throughout their education," the report says.

For example, one-third of the students who launch their careers at a particular community college transfer to another two-year school before they graduate, but the SRK numbers count these students as dropouts at the first college instead of graduates at the second institution.

And, the report points out, "Community colleges face the biggest problem calculating graduation rates because they have so many missions. They provide terminal vocational degrees, academic transfer degrees, and also offer many students the opportunity to take a number of classes to gain a specific skill. This leads to some unwarranted results. …