I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about the accountability movement in K-12. Results have been mixed, at best, but the impact has been so huge and is still growing.

Well at long last it seems to be coming to higher ed now.

[The GOP Governors of TX, FL and WI are] Mandating low-cost options like the $10,000 degree; holding down tuition prices, particularly at flagship institutions; tying funding to degree completion, particularly in fields deemed to be in “high demand”; paying faculty on the basis of performance, including how they fare on student evaluations; and likely asking the institutions to do it all with less state money.

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/11/30/texas-florida-and-wisconsin-governors-see-large-overlap-higher-education-platforms#ixzz2Dqjgy0Jv

I can’t see much wrong, no matter how you look at it, with the mandate to offer radically low cost degrees and to hold down tuition even at flagship institutions. Students and families need this; our society desperately needs affordable higher education. I think it is political leaders’ jobs to use the lever they have, which is funding, to push the changes they want; and it is educational leaders’ jobs to push back by defending and articulating what is most important in their institutions and what needs to be preserved at all costs. I believe that real innovation requires cost pressures. Resources are not infinite and choices have to be made.

There are HUGE questions, however, about how to actually measure performance in higher education. Tying funding to degree completion seems straightforward, but in reality it is anything but. Students transfer between institutions. They change their educational plans and goals. They drop out to start billion-dollar companies sometimes.

Measuring the performance of professors by how well-liked they are by students is, frankly, a fool’s game as well. My best professors in college inspired awe and trepidation, not smiley faces.

So how should we judge the value of education provided by institutions?

One model is the federal “gainful employment” rule, which was created to judge for-profit institutions by whether or not their former students are making enough money to pay their loans back. A measurement of income just a year or so after graduation is simple, although it’s also one-dimensional. It discounts the kid who is maxing out his credit cards to start a business, the one who is waiting tables while getting her PhD or MBA, and the brilliant musician sleeping in his grandma’s basement (although that guy may never make that much money.)

But money is not the only good thing in life. There’s a ton of social science research on the non-financial returns to education. People with more years of education have better health. Happier relationships. Longer marriages. They vote more, are more established members of communities, are more engaged in volunteer work. Their kids reap the benefits of more education as well. The effects ripple across a society.

In the age of big data, why not build a multidimensional longitudinal study of all of these returns on education for students at specific universities? Numbers counts. What we measure, we manage.

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