Professors Union: It’s Bad Policy To Measure Whether Colleges Help Students

One of the largest college teacher unions in the country has taken a rather odd education policy stance: opposition to measuring whether colleges are helping their graduates. In response to President Obama’s push to tie federal college aid to labor-market outcomes, the American Association of University Professors has issued a stern warning against the seemingly uncontentious idea of evaluating colleges before giving them money. “In reality measuring the output of our colleges and universities in a meaningful way is simply not possible,” writes President Rudy Fichtenbaum.

As someone with an advanced degree in the mathematics of social science, I fully appreciate the difficulty in quantifying post-graduate outcomes. But, Fichtenbaum’s opposition isn’t to any specific metric; it’s to the very idea of evaluation— not educational, not civic, not financial– nothing. He wants a blank check, even as colleges fail to improve student outcomes by their own standards.

“Quality education can give students skills that will be useful in helping them find jobs, but it is also about creating better human beings and giving students the knowledge to deal with the myriad of problems we face as a society. I have yet to see a test to measure whether or not someone has become a better human being.”

Put aside the fact that most of his association’s members are dedicated to quantifying every imaginable phenomenon on earth, higher education’s collective opposition to real-world preparation is causing America’s education woes.

Americans are graduating with an average of over $26,000 in debt and without the skills needed to find a job to pay it off. At least in the tech sector, 43 percent of jobs go unfilled for a month or longer — an indicator of the severe dearth of engineers in our talent-starved corner of the economy.

“But we will still face a major shortage of college-educated workers, especially as baby boomers retire,” concludes a new Georgetown report, predicting that 5 million jobs in science, finance, health, and tech will go unfilled. The fact that colleges are not adapting to 21st-century demands is a by-gone conclusion.

As a result, a cottage industry of adult-learning vocational startups, such as General Assembly and Enstitute, are filling the gap left by colleges. But, they can’t train millions of students.

To be clear, vocational training may not be the best way to actually educate an innovative workforce. General critical thinking and communication skills might be a better strategy. But, as the authors of Academically Adrift found, 36 percent of college students make no significant improvement on either these skills in four years. A whopping 35 percent spend fewer than five hours a week studying alone. Imagine trying to enter the workforce after 4 unproductive years of partying.

As a graduate student at the University of California Irvine, I once witnessed a professors’ abject aversion to measuring improvement. In a closed door meeting, the Vice Provost asked the faculty steering committee on curriculum if they wanted to measure whether the students were learning anything. After no one raised a hand, he said “because we don’t want to know the answer.”

As shocking as the experience was, I never thought I would see anyone crazy enough to admit their aversion to evaluation in public until I read Fichtenbaum’s letter to President Obama. Now, we have more evidence that colleges are, indeed, worried that Obama’s plan is radically disruptive.

Figuring out a way to evaluate colleges will not be easy (evaluations of any kind are difficult). But, that doesn’t mean the federal government should write a blank check without asking questions. If college is supposed to make better citizens, then measure whether students vote and can answer basic facts about the government. If it’s supposed to make students more critical thinkers, then measure whether they can read a newspaper and make an argument (this test is actually known as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which is the basis for Academically Adrift‘s conclusions).

And, if college is supposed to prepare students for work, then measure whether they’re getting a job. I’m not thrilled about the federal government defining the evaluation, but it appears to be the only way to motivate colleges that otherwise wish to maintain an existence of zero accountability.

Teacher unions are scared, because, as organizations of career academics, they’re not equipped to prepare students for a private sector they’ve spent their lives avoiding. Expect significant opposition to higher education reform.