What is the purpose of a university? This probably seems like a silly question, but the answer is more complex than "to provide an education." State universities receive a large percentage of their funding from the state. What should taxpayers receive in return for their investment? Persons who earn a college degree can expect to make more money throughout their working lives, and in turn they'll have a positive impact on the economy of the state. Presumably this will be good for the businesses in the state, and all of the citizens.
So, a higher graduation rate is good for business, right? Apparently, Arkansas governor Mike Beebe thinks so. Beebe has announced his plan to tie funding of higher education in Arkansas to graduation and retention rates. This sounds great--everyone should be held accountable for doing their job, and it's the job of universities to educate. But of course this idea can have only one result--grade inflation.
College administrators are under a tremendous amount of financial pressure, all the time. Faculty members all feel that they're underpaid. Students and their parents all think that tuition rates are too high. Expenses go up every year. The chancellor at the university where I teach has to spend all of his time thinking about money--negotiating with the legislature for funds, listening to employees whining about their pay, planning maintenance and new construction, juggling unforseen expenses, schmoozing with donors. On top of these, he has to worry about competition from other state institutions--there is only so much money coming from the state, and every dollar that goes to the big University in Fayetteville is one that doesn't go to our little college.
One of the most surprising things about teaching at the open-admissions university where I work has been the complete lack of pressure to pass underserving students through the system. In fact, the opposite has been true--my colleagues and I have been encouraged to maintain academic standards. But how long can this last in the face of possible funding cutbacks? If a student receives low grades, he is much more likely to drop out, and every dropout is going to cost the university money. It's easy to see what has to happen--Ds and Fs will become a thing of the past. Sure enough, graduation and retention rates will go up. And the worth of a college degree will go down.
Governor Beebe's heart is in the right place; a better-educated populace can only be a good thing. This is just not the way to get there.