INDIANAPOLIS—With support from Lumina Foundation, the National Research Council today released recommendations of an expert panel that developed a practical productivity measure which enhances the ability of administrators, policymakers and the public to track college and university performance.
The panel initiated the panel’s study in 2008 with a $990,000 foundation grant because the council viewed higher education productivity improvement—increasing the number of graduates, amount of undergraduate learning and overall level of innovation relative to taxpayer and family resources spent—as the most promising strategy for addressing college affordability. The panel determined productivity measures are needed to complement completion, graduation-rate, time-to-degree and related metrics. The panel’s report likened the new aggregate productivity measure to Gross Domestic Product, which should be supplemented with poverty, income/wealth distribution, health and other statistics to create a more complete picture of social and economic conditions.
The independent body, led by Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, has developed a starting point for tracking instructional productivity while also acknowledging the considerable challenges in doing so. Obstacles include disentangling resources allocated to research, public service, campus life and other functions from instructional costs; accounting for differences in students’ preparedness for college; and measuring the academic “value added” in terms of student achievement of learning outcomes and competencies.
Increasing tuition amid shrinking public funding of higher education has heightened urgency around improving institutional performance and defining and measuring student learning to ensure academic quality. Over time, use of the new measure, considered in light of other higher education data, could encourage more cost-effective delivery of courses and degrees that increases the nation’s capacity to serve students while maintaining educational quality and access.
“The council’s panel, made up of leading higher education researchers, deserves a great deal of credit for tackling a complicated-but-critical topic that has vexed their field for more than a century,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of Lumina Foundation. The Indianapolis-based philanthropy seeks to increase the share of Americans with high-quality college degrees and postsecondary credentials to 60 percent by 2025.
“We agree with the panel’s findings that productivity and quality measures should be central to strengthening higher education policy dialogues,” Merisotis said. “We also agree with this highly credible group that difficult-to-quantify measures should not deter us from taking steps to improve efficiency, effectiveness and overall productivity.”
While recommending longer-term research into defining and measuring what students learn in college, the panel noted “failure to implement a credible (productivity) measure may indefinitely defer benefits achievable from a better understanding of quantitative productivity.” The panel’s findings and conclusions highlight shortcomings of an existing measure, the credit hour, a “seat-time” formula used for the past century to estimate costs and outputs for higher education for both teaching and research.
The proposed productivity measure builds upon the pioneering spending analyses of Delta Cost Project, an effort Lumina began funding nearly six years ago to sharpen policy discussion of institutional revenue and spending. The new productivity measure explicitly endorses the value of completed degrees over and above credit hours that students accumulate short of earning degrees. The measure also is consistent with related methodologies practiced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and relies on existing public data while recommending improved data collection. In addition, the panel called for an end to the exemption from providing economic data to the U.S. Census that the higher education community successfully lobbied for in the 1970s. This exemption made colleges and universities one of the few sectors of the economy that do not disclose comparable economic information.
Within a few weeks, the National Academies Press will publish the panel’s findings, conclusions and recommendations in book form. Also, in coming months, Lumina Foundation plans to bring together higher education leaders and measurement specialists to determine whether and how to test the new performance measure and to explore research and public policy implications of the panel’s report.