Incentives for universities

Gov. John Kasich wants to link state aid to four-year institutions to graduation rates instead of enrollment.
Gov. John Kasich wants to link state aid to four-year institutions to graduation rates instead of enrollment.

Gov. John Kasich and the leaders of Ohio’s public universities have grand plans to transform higher education in the state. Many of their ideas are useful. But other suggested changes demand broad public debate, because they could alter the basic function of modern university education.

Two years ago, Mr. Kasich urged Ohio’s public universities to devise ways for students to graduate in three years. He aimed to reduce the cost of a college degree and to move graduates into the work force more quickly.

Last year, Governor Kasich encouraged four-year public universities and two-year community colleges to prepare a group budget for capital projects, instead of competing for limited state funds for building and renovation. The level of cooperation the schools displayed offered hope for future efforts to make higher education leaner and more efficient.

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These developments, while useful, did not resolve two big issues. College costs continue to rise faster than inflation. That puts a university degree out of reach for some young people, and saddles many graduates with overwhelming debts.

And while the 21st-century global economy demands a highly educated work force, only about one in four adults in Ohio has a bachelor’s degree. That’s well below the national average of about 30 percent.

So this year, Mr. Kasich, Ohio State University President Gordon Gee, and other higher-education leaders have a plan to link state aid to four-year institutions to graduation rates instead of enrollment, as is done currently. The goal is to give public universities an incentive to make sure students complete their degree programs in reasonable time.

If the criterion for a successful university system is return on investment, then early graduation, smaller debt loads, and higher graduation rates provide measurable returns. But the ultimate measures of success are what students know and how they think, not how quickly and cheaply they make it through their classes.

There already are several pathways for the small number of students who want to graduate early. The major untapped option to cut the time it takes to earn a college degree is to reduce the credits that students need to graduate.

What would be cut? Not major courses, certainly. So area requirements and electives would have to be pared back. That could threaten to turn Ohio’s universities into four-year vocational schools.

The plan to link state funding to graduation rates is a welcome admission by college leaders that their schools haven’t done a good job of retaining students. But it also could create an incentive for universities to engage in grade inflation.

According to research by scholars Stuart Rojstaczer, formerly of Duke University, and Christopher Healy of Furman University, the number of “A” grades given by college professors rose dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, in reaction to the military draft and the Vietnam war. Grades continued to rise after Vietnam, they said, because an increasingly popular consumer-based model of education created “incentives for the faculty to grade more generously.”

This consumer model appears at the heart of the changes that Governor Kasich and Ohio’s public university presidents have embraced. But if educators discount their product to raise their sales numbers, what they’re selling may not be worth anything.