The Dreaded ‘P’ Word: How Productive Are We?

The Dreaded ‘P’ Word: An Examination of Productivity in Public Secondary Education seeks to identify common indicators for determining productivity among institutions of higher education. Using an analysis of available funding resources, including state appropriations and tuitions revenues, in comparison to the production of graduates, author Patrick J. Kelly ranks the states based upon their ability to graduate students with degrees that have value in their state. Kelly’s argument for this research is that little progress has been made at the state level to gauge the return on investment in postsecondary education in comparison to other states. The report seeks to provide a productivity measure that is comparable across institutions.

This report highlighted an area that is lacking in higher education assessment, the ability to adequately measure states’ return on investment in postsecondary education. Kelly states that higher education is “not equipped with a wide variety of productivity measures that are directly comparable across institutions.” He adds that institutional missions may contribute to the lack of measurability and acknowledges that graduation rates may vastly differ based upon the socio-economic status of the student population. Kelly’s conclusion of the research is most telling in that “there is no evident relationship at the state level between resources and performance.” Some of the best performing states have the lowest resources, while some of the least productive have the largest resources.

Kelly suggests that it is important for states and systems of postsecondary education to identify benchmarks for productivity because only then can productivity be measured between states. At the same time he encourages more analysis of productivity levels of education so that overall productivity can be measured among states and against other countries. The report suggests that it should be an impetus for more research in postsecondary education, a beginning to the conversation that must occur about degree production based upon available resources.

How institutions spend resources and the outcomes they achieve require measurement if we are to continue advancing our postsecondary education systems. If institutions focus on indirect goals of productivity such as increasing graduation rates as opposed to increasing graduation rates in fields of study resourceful within the state, we will continue to be a nation challenged in this arena. In higher education, we cannot be afraid to seek the funding that is essential to support our students and institutions, but we must be willing to identify why it is needed.

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