Collecting California higher ed data complex

Daily Sundial

Proposals for two different higher education accountability systems that would evaluate whether the state’s education goals are being met await legislative action.

Assembly Bill 196, authored by Assemblymember Carol Liu, Dā€“44th District, is currently stalled in the State Senate Appropriations Committee, while the accountability system proposed by the California Postsecondary Education Commission awaits legislative funding to enact its accountability performance measures.

While California has had a Master Plan for Higher Education in place since the 1960s that provided a framework for the missions among the University of California system, the California State University system and California community college districts, higher education officials said it was not intended to measure performance or accountability.

“A lot of legislators would like to have a better idea of what kind of return they are getting on their investment,” said Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis for the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“The strongest accountability systems are built around clear definitions of what institutions are supposed to be doing,” he added. “If there’s not a clear mission for the university, it’s a little harder to hold accountable.”

All 50 states have an accountability system in one form or another that measure the performance of their public and private higher education institutions, Reindl said.

He said such statewide systems inform policymakers and the general public whether the institutions are meeting the state’s higher education obligations.

Reindl said California’s Master Plan defined fairly well the role of the three tiers of higher education. He said many state legislatures around the country believe the higher education system is doing a good job with the $60 billion of federal money that is spent annually.

Currently, California spends $12 billion of state money a year on higher education, he said.

Many higher education officials said the national and global shift toward a highly skilled workforce places increasing demands on institutions to better prepare students with the necessary skills to compete in today’s job market.

With state and nationwide reports revealing disparities in enrollment and graduation rates for people of different income levels and ethnicities, legislatures across the country have launched efforts to enact accountability systems that are consistent with institutional missions and state policy objectives.

Bruce Hamlett, chief consultant for the California Assembly Higher Education Committee, said he helped Liu draft AB 196, which came after a March 2005 report from the National Commission on Accountability in Higher Education, which Liu is a member of.

Hamlett said AB 196, which would cost the state about $500,000 to implement, would identify the key goals of the state, take a collective snapshot of how an institution’s respective performances add up, and then publish the report every other year.

Having the three tiers of higher education institutions measure their performance individually fails to provide policymakers and the general public with a fair evaluation of how the state’s systems work as a whole, he said.

“It’s not the Legislature’s job to say a particular school is not doing a good job,” Hamlett said. “The Board of Trustees, Regents and presidents do that. Assemblymember Liu is trying to collect data from the entire system to determine if state goals are being met.”

Murray Haberman, executive director of the Sacramento-based California Postsecondary Education Commission, said that as an independent body that advises the governor’s office and the Legislature, CPEC has the legal authority to establish and operate an accountability structure. He said CPEC’s proposed system would need $750,000 to be implemented.

California’s higher education institutions have resisted accountability measures in the past, but are now getting around to enacting efficient measures, Haberman said.

He said that in the past institutions had kept records of the total number of freshmen students enrolled and the time it took for them to attain a degree, but did not provide unit-specific data that corresponded with each student.

“Unit specific data tells you if a freshman is still a freshman the next year, or a sophomore or if they are no longer there,” Haberman said, adding that lack of funding often restrains the state’s educational institutions from collecting data and CPEC from reporting the data to the public.

Many education officials said establishing an effective accountability system for California presents a challenge because of the state’s size, diverse makeup and history of budget constraints.

Harry Hellenbrand, vice president for academic affairs and provost at CSUN, said the university is obligated to measure retention, remediation and graduation rates, as well as keep track of enrollment goals and growth.

CSUN completes three to four reports with 20-25 performance indicators every year that both the state and CSU system ask for, he said, adding that it creates “a mess.”

“Part of the problem (is that it) is not clear who mandates to whom,” Hellenbrand said. “It’s not done in a cohesive manner.”

Hellenbrand said the budget shortfalls of the mid-1980s forced California’s higher education institutions to look at other ways of meeting education obligations, such as retaining access to price-sensitive students in the face of rising tuition costs. He said more endowments that provide funding for student scholarships have been established.

Hellenbrand said the budget shortfalls coincided with a nationwide accountability movement, adding that the Board of Trustees is better equipped for establishing such structures, but that he’s not surprised state legislatures have been taking the initiative.

“Like most systems, the CSU gets nervous when the Legislature starts intruding on what (the CSU system) perceives is their autonomy,” Hellenbrand said. “People who pay the lion’s share of education funding are the taxpayers, who operate through the Legislature. They want to see accountability and how higher education is able to do what it purports to do.”

Henrik Minassians, CSUN political science professor and co-author of “Reporting on Education Results: Missing Links in the Performance Chain,” said accountability standards differ from state to state, varying from as few as 10 performance indicators to as much as 400 pages of data.

“Indicators are widely open in format and range but have become a permanent part of education landscape,” Minassians said. “In our book, we outline the complications of building performance indicators. (States) start measuring one thing at the expense of something else, with no one paying attention to it.”

Minassians said graduation rates could be a university concern just as much as it is a college or department issue. He said a comprehensive set of indicators that measure graduation rates should take into account prerequisite courses, class availability, and whether students are enrolled full-time or part-time.

“Some institutions are more specific and some are more vague,” Minassians said. “But since accountability systems are here to stay, colleges will have to start collecting data and making sense of it.”

Karl Engelbach, legislative affairs spokesperson for the UC system, said the UC system had always been supportive of an accountability system, but was alarmed by some measures in both of the current proposals. He said the bill initially made no allowances for consultation with representatives such as the UC and CSU systems, but after discussions with Liu’s office, AB 196 was amended to allow all parties to provide input and develop meaningful indicators.

“The bill did not specify the process how indicators would be developed,” Engelbach said. “We didn’t kn
ow what measures were going to be used. We would then be placed in a position of having to collect data we don’t have.”

Looking at all the higher education institutions combined and how well they provide and address the education needs of the state should not be left to the discretion of legislators or PSEC, Engelbach said.

He also said most of measures required of the state’s institutions are already of high interest and concern to all the parties involved.

Some say because California is such a large, diverse state where higher education institutions reside in urban, rural and suburban settings with various demographic trends, accountability systems could yield positive results.

“Reporting indicators expose where a university system stands with performance and forces it, if it is not doing well, to change practices to improve indicators,” Minassians said. “There is going to be continuous pressure on higher education systems in the country.”

Hellenbrand said it would be theoretically possible to directly measure how much a student is gaining in knowledge as they approach graduation. He said because of a shortage of labor and lack of clarity, a large-scale study that scientifically proves which knowledge is acquired from higher education would be expensive.

Hellenbrand said such a study would have to discount knowledge acquired through families, the news and movies, which would be difficult.

“If indicators don’t make that clear, we can be led into false conclusions,” Hellenbrand said. “It would be nice if (the systems) compelled institutions to change. But people tend to look at indicators in a vacuum.”

Julio Morales can be reached at