What Gets Measured Gets Done

What Gets Measured Gets Done

Those of us who spend our time arguing the fine points of education often zero in on the fact that there is no better way to ensure a child’s mobility than with education after high school. Getting into and out of college affordably and on time is especially tricky, and like many universities, UT-Austin averages just over half of its students getting a degree in four years. The struggle it takes for students to graduate at all, much less on time, was one reason I set up a higher education commission while serving as President George W. Bush’s education secretary. The Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which came to be known as the Spellings Commission, issued its report in 2006. Eight years later, here’s what I see.

Colleges and state policymakers are beginning to focus more on results and on measuring their goals. No longer are schools content with simply admitting students. They are concentrating on graduating them. UT-Austin, for example, has set a four-year graduation rate goal of 70 percent and specific policies to help meet that goal.

More universities are reporting data about their outputs. I’m proud that more than 300 universities, including UT-Austin, have joined the Voluntary System of Accountability that the commission prompted. We need to make sure the self-reported data has integrity and that we improve the comparability of it for consumers.

Here’s where we need to focus even more of our attention:

A critical domestic challenge is ensuring the dynamic, growing Hispanic population moves ahead academically. Our future in Texas is especially linked to the academic progress of Hispanic students. They make up more than half of students in Texas public schools.

UT-Austin and other schools know this, but Hispanic college graduation rates have far to go. They increased almost six percent at public universities in Texas from 2011 to 2012. Still, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board reports, their rates trailed those of white students by a two-to-one margin.

There are numerous ways to improve those numbers, but here’s one suggestion: Governors and legislators should keep focusing on high academic standards in the K-12 years. Students who enter college unprepared for the rigor they will encounter are more likely to fall behind.

Universities need to keep working with state policymakers and school districts to ensure the curriculum that high schools use is aligned to the requirements of a college. At the same time, universities need to let relevant community college courses transfer to their school. States like Texas have been working on making courses easier to transfer, but there is much more to do on this front.

States like Indiana and Tennessee have led the way in linking state funding to graduation rates. That is one sure way to get universities working on better completion strategies.

As with those K-12 debates, there is no magic bullet. How I wish there were one. But, as we have learned in elementary and secondary education, what gets measured gets done.

Students, taxpayers and the economy alike depend upon our colleges improving those rates, too. Let me close with these realities: Nearly 80 percent of the jobs in the U.S. require some kind of post-secondary degree. What’s more, estimates show that 62 percent of new jobs in another four years will require the same.

If we get students ready for tomorrow’s jobs, we will expand our economy. If we don’t, students will be left behind, and so will our economy.

It should be clear which road we want to go down.

Margaret Spellings is president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. She was U.S. secretary of education from 2005-09.




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