Beware the Iron Cage of Accountability

Simple-minded rankings and metrics might make good sound bites, but they will not inform policies and practices that will enhance educational value.

A version of this article first appeared in Inside Higher Ed, co-authored by Steven J. Tepper

In his famous book on capitalism, Max Weber warned that our modern world would increasingly be driven by endless attempts at measurement, accountability, efficiency, and control. These efforts would trap us, he cautioned, in an “iron cage” of rationality that precluded other ways of assessing value and setting policy–like intuition, tradition, imagination, values, and personal meaning.

In this spirit of measurement and accountability, the U.S. Department of Education is bringing unprecedented scrutiny to the increasing cost of higher education.

Can American higher education be more accountable, transparent, and forthcoming with telling measures of value without withering in Weber’s iron cage of bureaucratic oversight?

At the Education Department’s College Affordability and Transparency Center, “consumers” can now compare side-by-side the most expensive and least expensive institutions. When looking at private four-year nonprofit institutions, the likely suspects show up at the top of the list–highly selective liberal arts colleges–Bates, Middlebury, Sarah Lawrence, Vassar, Colgate, Wesleyan.

A more accurate measure of what people actually pay for college is net price, which takes into account that most public and private colleges “discount” their tuition price through grants and scholarships, both merit and need-based. If you look at net prices (average tuition minus average scholarship), a very different list emerges. Surprisingly, eight of the top 10 highest net-price schools are art schools (fine art, design, theater, dance) or music conservatories. In fact, almost every major private art school in America is listed in the top 5 percent of most expensive U.S. colleges.

Using a narrow interpretation of net price, consumers might conclude that art schools are inefficient, poorly managed, unable to control costs, and a bad deal for students and parents, especially given the widespread belief that most artists are, starving, depressed, and dissatisfied with their career choice. Are such conclusions warranted?

First, why are art schools so expensive? It is not because they pay their faculty too much; art professors are the lowest-paid teachers in the academy. Instead, the high costs are directly associated with the quality of their teaching mission. Music performance, dance, painting, design, and most other arts are still typically taught through intensive, often one-to-one mentoring, which makes for very low student-teacher ratios and high costs.

These programs are often facility- and equipment-intensive with students learning, literally, ancient techniques—Baroque performance practice or intaglio print making—as well as becoming familiar with emerging technologies and media at the center of the growing creative economy, from digital recording, to animation, to film, to 3-D prototyping machines.

Finally, many art schools are purposefully located in urban centers where students have access to a dense network of artists and arts organizations, internships, job opportunities, and performance and presentation venues, all of which drive operating costs. So, price and consumer cost are directly associated with the quality of the educational experience.

Obviously, net price does not provide everything one needs to know or consider in terms of institutional management. Moreover, it says nothing about educational value. Return on investment implicates many factors that must be taken into account when estimating the cost and benefits of higher education.

And art schools may yet prove a good value. Data from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, collected from more than 13,000 graduates across 150 different institutions, reveal that arts alumni are largely satisfied with their education and believe their training prepared them well for future work. Ninety percent of those surveyed in 2010 said their overall experience in art school was good or excellent and 76 percent would attend the same institution again if given the choice.

Given the intensive mentoring and training and the low student-teacher ratios, we were not surprised to find that 89 percent of students were satisfied with their classroom instruction. Across this large variety of participating schools, 57 percent of graduates reported that they have worked as “professional artists.” That number rose to 74 percent when cross-referenced with those who expressed an ambition to work as a professional artist. A very large percentage, more than half, are finding work teaching the arts.

Moreover, attending art school in an urban environment, although costly, turns out to be a good strategic decision for many. More than a quarter of graduates end up staying and working as artists in the same city where they went to school; 31 percent report developing important networks with professional artists off campus while they were in school; and many report participating in an off-campus internship. The unemployment rate for art school graduates is about the same as for other holders of bachelor’s degrees, and art school alumni report relatively high career satisfaction.

On the flip side, SNAAP data also reveal that debt is a serious deterrent for arts graduates who may end up pursuing non-arts careers because of their debt load. Art schools may find it difficult to cut costs dramatically, but they should do whatever possible to devote more resources to reduce student debt and increase need-based financial aid in order to ameliorate the debilitating effects of student debt on career opportunities.

To better understand the value proposition of a college education and to provide a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between cost, quality, mission, and outcomes, we need more fine-grained data sources like SNAAP. Simple-minded rankings and metrics might make good sound bites, but they will not inform policies and practices that will enhance educational value.

To be sure, arts schools cannot be and should not be excused from being held accountable to their constituents. Rather, they need to present the data that show their approach to education is distinctive; an approach that emphasizes critical feedback, mentoring and relationship building, creativity and risk-taking, and resilience in the face of failure. These outcomes cannot be captured in net-price indexes.

While tools like SNAAP are not perfect, they can help institutions, policy makers and higher education consumers to dig much deeper into questions of value. Thoughtful, fine-grained data gathering can provide critical information—both quantitative and qualitative—on a range of outcomes, from how well an institution prepares students for satisfying jobs to how well it develops essential skills and nurtures important lifelong networks. Accountability measures should in the end advance the highest purpose of giving wing to student aspirations, not drive higher education into a bureaucratic iron cage.

Douglas Dempster is dean of the College of Fine Arts and advisor to the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. Steven J. Tepper is associate professor of sociology and associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. He serves as senior scholar to SNAAP.

File photo by Marsha Miller


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