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Here Comes the Unfunded Mandate for Your IT Department!

Six years into the current presidency, it is easy to feel a bit jaded when considering the earnestness or competence of senior administration officials. It was clear early on that one of the primary goals of some of the president's biggest supporters was to reduce the size of the federal government. One advisor is well known for saying that the federal government should be starved until it is weak enough to be drowned in the toilet.

One tactic was, apparently, to place rather incompetent people in positions over bureaucrats who might sincerely want agencies to run well. Remember "Heck of a job, Brownie?" There have been and are lots of "Brownies." Another tactic was to outsource, outsource, outsource, whenever possible, this reducing the ranks of those bureaucrats who might actually care about (or be capable of) providing good government services, enriching companies selected in many instances due to their owners' politics, rather than the companies' capabilities.

What has this got to do with information technology and higher education, you ask?

(It's time, also, to be sure that you know that these are my personal opinions and not necessarily those of my employer!)

In the Department of Education, one of the rare federal agencies with a competent person in charge, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, there is actually a sort of a "reverse thrust" thing going on regarding the size of the federal government. When it comes to education, this administration seems to want the federal government to play a bigger role, albeit not necessarily as a provider of more funds.

Primary and secondary education

You've probably read a lot about the No Child Left Behind Act, which many people in the K-12 education realm believe has created huge, unfunded mandates that are causing school districts to spend all sorts of money and time (and more money) on gathering and reporting data of various sorts. The Bush administration says it's about "quality;" others say it is about--here it comes again--weakening the strength of public schools (and thus the role of government in providing education) and, as a side effect, lining the pockets of entrepreneurs who want to cherry pick the profitable parts of primary and secondary education.

'Nuff said. Not my realm, anyway: My kids have all graduated.

Postsecondary (higher) education

How do you measure the quality of learning and teaching that went into a bachelor's or masters degree--or a Ph.D., for that matter? This administration thinks that you do it by demanding that higher education institutions provide more and more, and more detailed, information to the federal government, so that it can decide. Weird, isn't it, that's almost exactly the opposite of the "smaller government" perspective. (There are those who think that if higher ed just gave up and let the feds implement a single nationwide testing system, they'd fold on this; maybe this is all a build-up to that?)

How this relates to information technology is that some of the time and money it takes to develop, implement, and maintain the collection and reporting of an awful lot of new data will have an impact on the resources of campus-based IT teams if the administration gets its way. IT staff won't be hit the hardest, but they will be hit.

How is quality control in higher ed done now?

Right now, "quality control" for higher education is basically left up to (a) the marketplace (sounds kind of right-wing) and (b) to nonprofit-based, "voluntary" procedures for accreditation (sounds kinda left-wing). Here's how it goes.

You've heard of accrediting agencies? They go by a bunch of names, and there are all sorts of specialized ones. There's one called the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), where you can find useful links to a lot of related information. In many minds, the most important ones are--and I found this quite confusing for a long time--the "regional" accrediting agencies, not the "national" ones.

On a cycle--this is simplified--of every ten years, each college or university prepares and submits large datasets and tons of "explanatory narrative" to their particular regional accrediting agency. There is a lot of back and forth, and eventually teams of visitors (staff and faculty from other colleges and universities under the umbrella of the accrediting agency). Among many other things, the peer-experts from the accrediting agencies look for assessment of Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs), for the outcomes of regular assessment of institutional effectiveness (how the school runs itself), and for evidence that the SLOs and the institutional effectiveness data are used in planning, including the budgeting process.

This process works so well that a number of colleges and universities in other countries actually participate, voluntarily. Well, if they don't participate and gain accreditation, the other schools won't accept their transfer credits, and lots of other things happen, like restricted access to student loans and the like.

There is literally nothing like it elsewhere on the planet. And that voluntary accreditation process is the envy of the rest of the world. More and more colleges and universities from other countries are getting accredited by US "regional" agencies. At a recent workshop on planning and accreditation I met professors from universities in France and Egypt that are accredited by the same "regional" association.

Surely any process can be improved. However, it's pretty clear that US higher education's quality improvement procedures are not "broken," yet the federal government wants to "fix" them. That's scary news to a lot of your peers on campus, and not just due to all of the unfunded work that could be required.

The department's latest broadside is being dubbed "Huge IPEDS," named after the current much smaller federal government higher education database:

Inside Higher Ed reported in December that the department was contemplating such an expansion, which its officials had internally dubbed "Huge IPEDS," as an alternative to the more controversial federal "unit records" system. (IPEDS is the federal government's primary database for information about colleges, their staffs and their students, although it doesn't collect information about individual students, like the unit records system the department also coverts.) In recent weeks, department officials had seemed to back away from the idea, telling a meeting of college association leaders as recently as this month that no such expansion of IPEDS was planned soon.
Source: Inside Higher Ed

One professor of education said that the proposal "may not be very well thought through at this point." Another, commenting on the article quoted above, said: "What you read here is a tragic testimony to ignorance." Another said: "One can only hope that this fad passes into oblivion, like the many others that have emerged over the years, relatively soon."

One thing's certain: If this happens, it's going to be more work for college and university IT staff, as well as for many other administrators, especially staff in institutional research departments, which are typically understaffed at most schools already. And the race is on. The department seemed to be moving at a relatively slow pace a couple of years ago, but as the time remaining on this administration's clock is now under two calendar years, it seems to be moving faster, with even a little bit of desperation.

No matter what, there will be more mandates on colleges and universities, but I'm on the side of those who want to keep it "voluntary," with whatever "mandates" there are being imposed by peers rather than the federal government. Isn't that amazing? I end up on this one, being on the small government side. And I'm a liberal.

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