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Does Increasing Efficiency Reduce Quality?

Colleges and universities in the United States are facing increasing pressure to produce a larger number of workforce-ready graduates, and institutional leaders are seeking ways to respond.

A number of inventive approaches are being suggested across the industry aimed at increasing the number of degree holders nationwide. Some institutions are cutting the number of credits needed to graduate. In Florida, a recently-introduced proposal would allow online courses to be exempt from the same approval process that traditional courses are subject to, reducing the threat of losing accreditation.

The governors of Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin have gone even further; all of them have questioned the value of subsidizing liberal arts programming at public institutions.

Enraged, faculty across the U.S. are vocalizing their concerns about the impact of these tactics on quality of education.

“We all want to have more students graduate and graduate in a more timely manner,” Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors, told The Hechinger Report. “The question is, do you do this by lowering your standards?”

Later this month, university faculty members from various institutions will meet at a gathering initiated by Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE) to discuss these issues. The CFHE explained that a lack of quality in higher education will result from focusing purely on statistics like graduation rates.

To this end, Fichtenbaum pointed out that funding institutions based on performance metrics is likely to encourage faculty to simply pass a larger number of students, rather than focus on what they are learning.

“I have no doubt this is going to create a subtle pressure to pass students who wouldn’t otherwise,” Fichtenbaum told The Hechinger Report.

On the other hand, Debra Humphreys, vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, says that there is no sufficient evidence to prove that higher education quality is being tarnished by increasing graduate numbers.

She pointed out that while many faculty feel change is unnecessary, the lack of qualified employment candidates leaving academia for the workforce requires institutions to rethink their practices. However, Humphreys is clear that focusing exclusively on speed of graduation is not an acceptable solution; attention must also be paid to learning outcomes.

“The idea that the system is working fine, and we just need to get students through more quickly, is false,” she told The Hechinger Report. “[When it comes to] getting students through more efficiently, more quickly and with the learning they need, we need to pay attention to all three. Otherwise, at least one will suffer.”