April 25, 2013Vol. 43, Issue 2

Accountability: Federal College Scorecard Gives CSU, Chico High Marks

The accountability movement in higher education has been with us for a long time. In brief, it compels colleges and universities to be answerable to those who have a stake in their performance. The federal government is involved because of federal funds for financial aid, research, and special initiatives such as supporting STEM programs and encouraging college opportunities for underrepresented populations in our country. Accreditation agencies are engaged because the feds count on them to ensure the integrity and performance of the institutions in their regions. Parents, of course, seek assurance that the colleges and universities which their children attend provide affordable value, that is, bang for their bucks. And, at the most fundamental level, we are most answerable to the learning and success of our students. And we should never lose sight of that.

For state institutions, of course, accountability also centers on the public sources of funding to support their operations. This primarily means their state allocations, which, for most of their existence, have accounted for the bulk of their funding. For the CSU, for example, support from the California General Fund provided 81 percent of our budget revenues 10 years ago. It is now 51 percent, as the state has steadily retreated from its commitment to higher education and student fees have risen dramatically to fill most of the gap. There is an old saying that California is just like the rest of the nation—only more so. The sad truth of the matter, though, is that the rest of the nation has already gone where we are headed with even steeper declines in state support for public colleges and universities. We are rapidly catching up with this trend, just not ahead of the curve, yet.

Accountability has risen to a fever pitch in legislatures across the nation. And California is certainly not lagging in this regard. The docket of new bills being introduced this year in Sacramento abounds with measures designed to “manage” our campuses. Everything from faculty workloads to student course loads, from curriculum design to teaching methods, from employee compensation to fee levels has drawn the attention of legislators. In fact, there is a certain fury about these bills as both the Democrats and Republicans are vying to be the most responsible watchdog regarding higher education. Further, the governor’s proposed budget contains sharp caveats for the funding that is being proposed for the CSU. In particular, these would freeze tuition fees for several years and establish specific graduation rates and degree-completion targets for our institutions to achieve. Failure to do so will result in funding reductions.

So in what shape are we to deal with these challenges? One of the principal contexts in answering this question is our accreditation standing with WASC. Five years ago, when we were last up for reaccreditation, we passed that test with flying colors. We were the first campus in the CSU to receive a full 10-year reaccreditation judgment under WASC’s new standards. Hard to believe, we are already starting to prepare for WASC’s return in 2018.

Our performance record in matters that attract both federal and state interest was just given another boost. This is the College Scorecard, a project of the National College Affordability and Transparency Center, which President Obama established in order to provide key information on college affordability and value.

The Scorecard focuses on five indicators of institutional performance:

  • Cost: defined as the average net price for undergraduates at their institution for academic year 2010–2011. For public institutions, this means in-state student tuition and fees.

  • Graduation rate: measured for first-time, full-degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduate students who began their studies in 2005. In other words, the six-year graduation rate.

  • Loan default rate: this refers to an institution’s borrowers who defaulted on certain federal student loans within three years of receiving those loans.

  • Median borrowing: defined as the median amount of federal student loans borrowed for a student’s undergraduate study. This is a measure of indebtedness.

  • Employment: a category more implied than precise, but one measure is the starting and mid-career median salaries of an institution’s graduates

The best score in each category would be low cost, high graduation rate, low loan default rate, low median borrowing, and high starting and median salaries indicating the employability of an institution’s graduates.

So, how did we do? Our average undergraduate tuition and fees of $11,276 placed us in the low category for costs; our 60 percent graduate rate placed us in the high level for six-year graduation rates; in terms of both loan default rates (5.8%) and federal loan borrowing ($163 a month), our students were in the low levels; and, regarding starting ($45,900) and mid-career ($82,500) median salaries, our alumni ranked in the top third of the CSU and in the top 15 percent nationally among all public universities. In other words, we excel in the area of alumni employment, and received the best score possible in the four defined categories in the College Scorecard. Perhaps even more impressively, we are the only CSU or UC institution to have done so.

The College Scorecard is not without its shortcomings. For example, it does not measure student learning or the environment to support student learning. At best, student learning is implied through the job prospects of graduates and the earning power of alumni. But even then, preparing students for high-paying jobs is hardly the only purpose of our nation’s colleges and universities. We are so much more than pre-professional institutes.

Nevertheless, especially with California’s governor and legislature demanding that the CSU and UC increase access, contain costs, improve graduation rates, and demonstrate positive consequences of our students’ time with us, we have a pretty good story to tell. In fact, whether it is WASC, or the College Scorecard, or the President’s Honor Role for Community Service, or our veteran-friendly designations, or so many other testimonials to what we are accomplishing for our students and our region, no public institution in California has a better one.

Paul J. Zingg