When is Higher Education Productivity an Institutional Issue and When Is It Systemic?

In a paper published by TIAA Institute and NACUBO as part of a series examining higher education productivity, Nate Johnson argues that much of higher education’s output is a function of its systemic structure and composition, rather than simply the sum of its institutional parts. Historically, gains in total outputs have happened both by adding new institutions and by growing existing ones, while some of the biggest gains in efficiency (or its conceptual cousin, productivity) have come from the addition of new types of institutions that have had different objectives and missions than their pre-existing competitors.

A focus on systemic productivity requires a population-based approach to measurement, which makes students and potential students in a given metropolitan area, state or nation the target of analysis, rather than a particular set of institutions. And when students are the focus, their own contribution to higher education outputs, in the form of time devoted to postsecondary study, becomes a critical input in productivity measurement.

The paper is available here as well as on the TIAA Institute website.


Analyzing the Relationship Between Higher Education and Jobs at CAPSEE

Analyzing the Relationship Between Higher Education and Jobs at CAPSEE


This year’s Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment (CAPSEE) Convention featured four plenary and 12 breakout sections all centered on the idea of The Value of Education—And How to Further Strengthen It. Specifically, we came together to review emerging research on the relationship between higher education and jobs. There has always been tension between higher education’s role in vocational training and its broader educational and cultural function. While I think this tension will always be there, improving our assessment techniques will go a long way toward minimizing it and increasing our ability to collect quality, usable data.

The most difficult programs to assess are those whose primary goal is not a specific job. Although the lack of experimental or quasi-experimental research means there is no clear causal link between programs and outcomes, the correlations do have value. Measuring the impact of any degree that focuses on education rather than preparation for a specific job will probably always be challenging but assessing the incomes of graduates in vocationally-oriented programs should become easier and more reliable in the next few years.

Since most students are in programs with reasonably clear vocational outcomes (whether an MD or an HVAC tech) there is data to be analyzed. The health professions are especially useful for studies spanning different states, time periods, program types and methodologies, although selection bias may be an issue for potential healthcare workers. Also, the findings are much more mixed depending on methodology, definitions, state or program length than for other fields.

Throughout the convention, it was clear from the variety of well-researched and provocative papers that we remain far from a consensus on how the returns of postsecondary education should be measured. I believe, though, that the current state of our understanding should not be an end, but a beginning. Not being able to measure everything does not mean we should measure nothing.

If you missed the CAPSEE convention, presentations are available for download


Thoughts on Quebec’s Pre-University System


Quebec’s system of “General and Vocational Colleges” or “CEGEPs” in French, combine what in other places in the U.S. and Canada would be the senior year of high school and the first year of college into a two year pre-university program that is free to students and covers most of the general education and major prerequisite courses that students need. The Federation des CEGEPs in Quebec illustrates one aspect of Canada’s drive to increase availability and effectiveness of postsecondary education. Founded in 1969 to promote education on the collegiate level to students in their first year of higher education, the Federation maintains a network of 48 colleges or “CEGEPs” intended to prepare students for university. All students who intend to continue on to university studies after eleven years of primary and secondary education are required to attend a CEGEP. Unlike community colleges, which serve only a certain percentage of the student population in a given state or province, CEGEPS are universal. In this system, students complete their primary and secondary education one year earlier than other school systems in North America, but then attend a CEGEP for a year before moving on to university or vocational training school.

Federation LogoConsidered a “gateway” to post-secondary education, Quebec’s CEGEPs boast a broad range of educational, cultural, sports, community and social activities that bridge that gap for many of the area’s students. Pre-university programs that lead directly into university studies and technical career programs prepare students for the next step and beyond, and all students take both general education courses and more focused pre-university or vocational courses during their time at CEGEP.

A similar idea has gained momentum in the United States as well with many schools opting into the “early college” model of schooling for students. According to a fact sheet published by Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization committed to fixing “leaks” in the education to career pipeline, the figures are promising. Ninety-three percent of students working in the early college system graduate (compared to 75% nationwide), and 76% go on to college. Taking these classes can also lower costs as up to 30% of credits toward a bachelors and 60% toward an associate’s degree can be completed in these programs.

Though CEGEPs are generally accepted as good foundations for students to explore their options and find a career they will enjoy, there have been a few detractors who say there is not enough return on investment, and that by funding CEGEPs, money that could be going to more effective educational systems is being misspent.

StudentsOne thing that is not in question is the importance of postsecondary education to the emerging generation of Canada’s students. As in the US, the Canadian job market is beginning to demand an advanced degree from its workers, meaning that it is imperative that organizations like the Federation of CEGEPs continue to improve the availability and affordability of education. Although neither Canada nor the United States has solved the problem of student readiness and low graduation rates, studying the pros and cons of the current CEGEP system may shed some light on possible future solutions.

photo credit: VilledeVicto via Flickr cc by-nd 2.0
photo credit: LeafLanguages via Flickr cc by-sa 2.0

Three Strategies that Moved the Needle in Kentucky

Pages from Kentucky_Lumina060614With its commitment to higher education reform and measurable, systemic goals that have proven attainable, Kentucky has become a model for other states. Though there are many reasons for the success, three key factors stand out: strong leadership for whom education is a top priority, clearly defined goals and smart financial aid programs designed to educate and engage students and their families. By applying these factors on a consistent basis, other states could follow suit and see similar improvements to their own educational systems. Read the full brief here.


Kentucky’s story begins with the Postsecondary Education Improvement Act of 1997 that created actual measurable goals for the state. Chief among these goals was increasing the level of postsecondary education completion in Kentucky’s work force. Largely because of this reform, Kentucky’s proportion of adults holding these credentials has increased relative to state population and compared to the national average. Other results include an increased proportion of adults with higher education, improved average bachelor’s degree graduation rates and an improved average of community college graduation rates. When comparing these results to other states, it is important to address the major points of the 1997 reform and its context.

Kentucky has excelled at putting its commitment to higher education outcomes in the public eye. Every May or June the state’s Council on Postsecondary Education sends out a press release announcing public and private college graduation rates within the state. The media follows up the press release with articles updating the public on the year’s statistics and comparing previous years’ rates. The existence of these articles demonstrates the success Kentucky has had emphasizing the importance of focusing on the outcome of its education reform by not only keeping the public informed of improvements in graduation rates, but also increasing the public’s investment in their state’s postsecondary education system.

Although the reform act is generally considered a major impetus for the improvements in Kentucky, there were added positive conditions in place that might impede other states’ attempts at emulating Kentucky’s success. As mentioned above, Kentucky had strong leadership in place in the form of a two-term governor who made postsecondary education his most important policy issue and was willing to trade political capital on controversial, but important, provisions. Consistent and clear goals were adhered to, good questions were asked and those involved were focused on outcomes rather than micromanagement. And compared with policies in many other states, Kentucky’s approach to student aid was much better engineered to improve completion and attainment rates.

Despite the concentration Kentucky put on postsecondary education reform, the experiment did not result in an overabundance of spending. State spending on higher education did increase on an absolute level but declined on a per-student basis, and, although tuition increased significantly between 1997 and today, other factors, including the recession of 2008, could be responsible for this.

To this day, Kentucky continues to innovate in higher education, both at a state level and at its dynamic, growing institutions. However, there are continuing challenges that this and every state attempting reform must face. Kentucky’s success is a lesson in the complexity of higher education and the importance of committing to clear cut and well-thought-out goals.