How to Improve Obama's 'College Scorecard'

The White House’s new “College Scorecards,” touted by President Obama in his State of the Union Address and available online, provide a new layer of transparency for students, parents, and teachers who are seeking more information about the “value” of different colleges.

Each scorecard, one for each college or university in the country, includes specific data: college graduation rates, cost of tuition, student loan default rates, plus the average amount of debt owed by each college’s graduates — a particular important number as average student debt tops more than $1 trillion in the United States. But there are additional, equally illuminative measures of “value” that aren’t part of the federal Scorecards, but would help to provide a full picture of a college’s student-focused services.

At the top of the list: What percentage of the college’s faculty is working on a contingent, or adjunct, basis? In recent years, more institutions are turning to low-paid, temporary faculty members to teach classes—between 1999 and 2007, their numbers grew by 41 percent, according to federal statistics. And while these part-time instructors may be highly qualified, the conditions of their employment may also undermine student learning. For example, how do students get extra help when their teachers don’t have offices? How do they get job recommendations when their favorite teacher has moved onto parts unknown? Plus, perpetual job insecurity does not usually inspire great teaching.

“Anxiety about student evaluations can lead contingent faculty to avoid controversial material, reduce the rigor of course requirements, construct syllabi and select reading material with the administrator, not the student, in mind,” wrote Claire Goldstene, a contingent faculty member, in the most recent issue of NEA’s Thought & Action.

Another good question: What is the ratio of students to college counseling staff? As states systematically defund their public colleges and universities, those institutions are forced to cut staff and programs. “Counseling, disability and library services are disproportionately cut,” said Jim Rice, president of NEA’s National Council for Higher Education (NCHE). In the 2010 Community College Counselors Survey, counselors said their chief concerns were: “Understaffing,” “feeling overwhelmed,” “budget cuts,” and “increase in severity and complexity of students issues.” About 30 percent of counselors reported a ratio of one counselor per 2,000 or 2,500 students. Fourteen percent reported one per 5,000. The recommended ratio is one to 370.

Counselors, who typically deal with academic problems, learning disabilities, mental health disorders, and more, can make the critical difference between a student dropping out and a student persisting in earning a degree and getting a much-needed job, said Rice.

And finally, ask about faculty workload: are there firm limits on workload and how were they determined? At Western Washington University (WWU), for example, the recently negotiated faculty contract makes clear that workload isn’t just about the number of classes taught by each professor, it’s about the number of students in each of those classes. Union negotiators saw clearly that faculty workload has everything to do with the quality of education provided to students at WWU, and they worked hard to make sure faculty members could provide the most possible attention and support to all students, said bargaining chair Kevin Leonard. But other schools may not have any limits on workload – or they may be limits that were set by office administrators, not the people actually doing the teaching.