March 12, 2007
Turnabout is Fair Play in Evaluating Education
Much has been made in recent years over the performance of our state’s secondary schools. In particular, the recent revisions made to high school graduation statistics, suggesting that as few as three out of every four ninth graders graduate with their class, have sounded an alarm. People are saying that something is wrong with K-12 education in Indiana, and they would appear to have plenty of ammunition to support their arguments.
But turnabout is fair play in the business of evaluating education. Since many of those critical of K-12 education are associated with colleges and universities, school boards and superintendents around the state may get some satisfaction from a recent report that casts graduation rates in Indiana’s public higher education institutions in what at first glance would appear to be an unflattering light.
As reported by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, data from the largest public universities in Indiana, as compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, show that fewer than 75 percent, -- and in some cases as little as 30 percent -- of those first enrolling obtain a bachelor degree within six years.
It is easier to compile and report these statistics than to get a handle on what they mean. To their credit, the Chamber’s report, published in the latest issue of Biz Voice, does an excellent job of placing each University’s graduation rates in perspective, by comparing them to other institutions around the country of similar stature. Aggregate data on student quality, as measured by median scores on entrance examinations, also provides a controlling factor to consider.
Yet the implications of the findings that many Indiana higher education institutions rank in the bottom half of these peer rankings in graduation rates are far from obvious. In particular, the article’s contention that the data point out defects requiring correction by Purdue, Ball State, and other high profile state universities in Indiana is at best, overly simplistic.
Of course, I work for a state university, so I might be expected to voice this sentiment. I might also be expected to say that if the high schools in the state are not doing a good job of preparing students for college, their graduates’ poorer – or at least slower -- performance in securing degrees when they attend post-secondary institutions is not altogether surprising.
By this logic, when we blame universities for lower than average graduation rates we are effectively shooting the messenger. Yet I am reluctant to push the argument that lower graduation rates are yet another problem caused by underperforming K-12 education, for at least two reasons.
For one thing, education – any education – beyond high school has a substantial payout for lifetime earnings. After all, neither Bill Gates nor Michael Dell received degrees from the institutions they attended within six years.
But more importantly, this business of pointing fingers of blame in the wake of research findings on educational attainment – particularly at K-12 schools and state universities whose reliance on public support make them directly accountable – doesn’t really move us very far along in understanding and solving Indiana’s historically low educational attainment levels. Universities blame high schools, high schools blame parents, and parents blame television.
It’s all a form of denial, in my opinion, over the unpleasant truth that we collectively do not value education in Indiana as much as other states do, including our Midwest neighbors. Labor force participation rates and earnings data suggest that our younger people, on average, value the immediate benefits of working today more than the future value of the higher earnings that putting off employment in favor of schooling will bring.
And that, perhaps more than anything, is one of the biggest challenges our state faces today.
About the Author
Educational Attainment, the 21st Century Fund and the Future of SchoolingIndiana ranks 42nd in educational attainment.
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