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Improving Measurement of Productivity in Higher Education

May 18, 2012

Improving Measurement of Productivity in Higher EducationSource: National Research Council
From Summary (PDF):

Higher education is a linchpin of the American economy and society: Teaching and research at colleges and universities contribute significantly to the nation’s economic activity, both directly and through their impact on future growth; federal and state governments support teaching and research with billions of taxpayers’ dollars; and individuals, communities, and the nation gain from the learning and innovation that occurs in higher education.

Notwithstanding its prominent role, effective use of resources is (and should be) a serious concern in the delivery of higher education, as it is for other sectors of the economy. In the current environment of increasing tuition and shrinking public funds, a sense of urgency has emerged to better track the performance of colleges and universities in the hope that their costs can be contained while not compromising quality or accessibility. Metrics ranging from graduation rates to costs per student have been developed to serve this purpose. However, the capacity to assess the performance of higher education institutions and systems remains incomplete, largely because the inputs and outputs in the production process are difficult to define and quantify. For higher education, productivity improvement—increasing the number of graduates, amount of learning, and innovation relative to the inputs used—is seen as the most promising strategy in the effort to keep a high-quality college education as affordable as possible.

It was within this context that this panel was charged to identify an analytically welldefined concept of productivity for higher education and to recommend practical guidelines for its measurement. The objective is to construct valid productivity measures to supplement the body of information used to (1) guide resource allocation decisions at the system, state, and national levels and to assist policymakers who must assess investments in higher education against other compelling demands on scarce resources; (2) provide administrators with better tools for improving their institutions’ performance; and (3) inform individual consumers and communities to whom colleges and universities are ultimately accountable for private and public investments in higher education. Though it should be noted that the experimental measure developed in this report does not directly advance all of these objectives—particularly that pertaining to measurement of individual institution perfomance—the overall report pushes the discussion forward and offers first steps.

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