The Twelve Reforms of Christmas, Part III

(Editor’s note: This is the third installment in our “Twelve Reforms of Christmas.” The first and second were published earlier this week.)

We hope that Santa came to your house this year and gave you what you wanted. We at the Pope Center are still hoping for our wish list to be fulfilled—but we have high hopes for the New Year.

9. Limit mission creep.

In Holden Thorp’s 2010 book Engines of Innovation (co-written with entrepreneur Buck Goldstein) the UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor painted a picture of the university as the nucleus for all kinds of social change. Universities “have no choice and must rise to the challenge at this moment in history,” Thorp wrote of a supposed imperative for universities to tackle the “world’s biggest problems.”

Thorp and Goldstein’s recommendations are emblematic of the modern university’s proclivity to try to “do it all.” And many of its activities are not the “world’s biggest,” but rather small. For example, the UNC system funds Area Health Education Centers (AHECs). These are continuing education centers for health care professionals; why should the UNC system subsidize the health care industry in this way? Some land- grant college extension services, initially intended to help farmers boost productivity, are now promoting social and environmental advocacy .

Universities should stick to what they do best: teaching and research, talking and thinking. As public intellectual Stanley Fish famously said, “save the world on your own time.”

10.  Make the College Learning Assessment a permanent fixture at UNC.

How much are students learning in the UNC system? No one knows for sure. Grades provide some measure of how much students can absorb and retain for a short time, but not long-term improvements in knowledge and thinking ability—one of the main purposes of higher education. Plus, grades have become less informative in this era of grade inflation when the average grade given is around B+.

A standardized test by which the gains in knowledge and reasoning by students, programs, and universities can be properly weighed against each other is needed for a true evaluation. One of the best tests developed to measure improvements in learning and thinking ability is the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). The test was used to great effect in the 2011 book Academically Adrift.  Richard Arum and Josipa Riksa showed that 45 percent of students tested “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” in their first two years of college, and 36 percent did not show any improvement after 4 years.

UNC schools have been told to report on some outcome measure (the deadline for doing so is January 13, 2013), and seven have reported the results of a pilot test, although not all are using the CLA.

The UNC system should require this test and its publication in the future. Schools should test a representative sample of students during their freshmen and senior years and include in its report CLA test results for each academic department. In that way, we could develop a rough idea of how much learning is occurring at each school. Such information would be valuable to prospective students, their parents, employers, and state leaders trying to ensure that our tax dollars are being spent wisely. 

11. Cut duplication of low-enrollment courses.

The same subjects are taught at many different schools within the UNC system. Most of this is fine—competition has its benefits—but there is room for improvements in efficiency, especially among those subjects that don’t attract many students.

A model method for realizing these savings is an online consortium called the UNC Foreign Language Assembly. By using the Web, students throughout the system are able to take classes even in relatively obscure languages. Whereas the low demand at a particular school may make offering a language too expensive, pooling the demand from across the system could make it cost-effective.

As Alisa Chapman, the UNC system’s associate vice president for academic planning, told the Daily Tar Heel, the Foreign Language Assembly has the potential to both “expand access and at the same time be more efficient.” UNC Board of Governors member Phil Dixon estimated that the system could save millions by pooling courses online. It’s worth exploring.

12. Gradually increase the minimum SAT or ACT scores required for acceptance at UNC schools.

Lots of people argue about how much weight should be given to standardized tests in college admissions, but they remain the best predictor of how well students will fare in college. And what they tell us about the academic preparation of many incoming college students is troubling. As Jenna Robinson pointed out in an article for the Pope Center, more than half of students do not meet benchmarks of college readiness set by either the College Board (which administers the SAT) or the company that runs the ACT. The organizations set the standard for college readiness at somewhere between 1015 and 1030 on the SAT (or the ACT equivalent), defining the standard in terms of how likely students with those scores are to earn a grade of C, B-, or better.

The University of North Carolina already has a minimum SAT score for incoming students: 750 this year, moving up to 800 for 2013 and beyond. We think it would be a good idea to continue gradually increasing it to, perhaps, 900. That would still be below the college readiness threshold set by College Board and ACT, and determined students could still go back and take the test again.

We welcome your comments on our proposed reforms. Happy New Year!