Among this site’s bugbears is the recent lurch of the UA away from any semblance of selectivity and quality, towards an ASU-South. It’s better, though, not to look at the problem as some sort of nefarious plot hatched by McBrewton Raytheon III™; rather, like most policy errors, it stems from a bad alignment of incentives. There’s no better explanation for this dynamic than metrics that the UA plans on using to define success in its latest Five Year Plan [PDF, page 10]:
1. Number of Degrees Awarded
2. Freshman Retention Rate
3. Graduation Rate
4. Overall Enrollment
5. R&D Expenditure
The easiest metric here is overall enrollment rate – simply have an admissions policy that errs on the side of acceptance. In fact, even keeping the same low standards will allow for an increase in enrollment on the basis of demographics alone.
But how to make them stay? Again, the easiest and most effective means of accomplishing this is making sure that students aren’t performing poorly in their first-year courses. It would be nice if one could simply get students to put forth a full effort, but this goes against a nationwide trend of a lower proportion of college students being prepared for college work. Also, it’s rather expensive, and there’s no certain way to make students work harder — especially when those students are less prepared for college-level work than previous cohorts. Far easier to lean on the producers of those grades to keep standards lenient, to bring the work amount down to the level of the customers students. The more good grades, the greater the retention rate.
So how do we make them graduate? If we’re admitting more students and giving them cake classes, aren’t they all going to drop out before earning their degree? That’s as simple as the freshman retention problem (which can be thought of as a ‘first-year graduation problem’): lower the standards for obtaining a degree. Don’t just make introductory courses easy to give freshman a boost — make upper-level courses less demanding to give students on the cusp of graduating a boost. This in turn increases the overall number of degrees. (The inclusion of this metric with graduation rate may seem redundant, but it’s more accurate to say that it’s a hedge — far easier to churn out degrees than to churn out a proportion.)
The one thing that isn’t quite so apparent on the surface here is the impact on R&D expenditures. But let’s try this on for a null hypothesis: the larger a research university is, the more resources and programs it has available to solicit funding. The more solicitations, the more grants; the more grants, the more expenditures. (Note that this isn’t a per-capita metric, but a gross one.) Think of the research university in this case as a pyramid structure – a large base of undergraduates with semi-dubious prospects of broader academic success is used to subsidize the higher-level research that brings in dollars from Big Daddy Fed and the Foundations.
Quality is always harder to measure than quantity, but this system distinctly incentives towards quality reduction without any checks. Instead, Shelton et al will continue to assert that quality enough that it simply becomes true. And of course, quality has no con-stitch-en-cy — never mind a midget and broom — while each agency within the UA (including the U. itself) has an incentive in maximizing its own budget. There’s nothing to complicated about this science of administration. The art of administration involves covering this up with and enough divertissments on “sustainability” and rock climbing walls and other such trends that nobody notices as you do so.
Keep in mind that if college degrees were inherently bestowed with some sort of intrinsic value, we would simply have His Obamaness issue a decree executive order bestowing a B.S. (because, remember, only STEM counts!) upon everyone. Of course, everyone knows that the value of degree derives from some input; so when you design a system that by its nature incentivizes this sort of degradation, don’t be surprised at the proliferation of trend pieces asking some variation of, “Is tuition worth it?”