Letters to the Editor

Vedder's Analysis of 'Failed' Chicago State U. Is Flawed

April 18, 2011

To the Editor:

Richard Vedder's article "Chicago State U. Costs More Than Northwestern" (The Chronicle, March 7) purportedly measured the graduation output of several universities. Mr. Vedder's comparison group included three public institutions (one a public master's institution and the other two public research institutions) and five private institutions (three private research institutions and two private bachelor's institutions). In the article, Mr. Vedder concluded that Chicago State University is a "failed institution" and questioned why it should not be closed.

Two of the universities in the article are places I know well—Northwestern University and Chicago State. I graduated from Northwestern three times, with bachelor of science, master of arts in teaching, and doctoral degrees. I am proud of my time there, and my subsequent associations including having served on the Board of Trustees and having been chairman of the Board of Advisors for the School of Education and Social Policy. One of the school's goals is to "understand how to improve the life chances of children in poverty and develop families, communities, and workplaces into learning communities." Chicago State's mission is to "provide access to higher education ... where academic and personal growth may have been inhibited by lack of economic, social, or educational opportunity."

As president of Chicago State for the past 18 months, I have learned about and studied the university to build on its history of successes and to improve the chances of its current students. In fact, at one of our recent graduations, more than 60 percent of our students were the first in their families to graduate from college. Chicago State students are trying to lift themselves and their families out of poverty and become lifelong learners. Our students come to us from the lowest quartile for academic preparation and the lowest economic quartile. Essentially, my current mission is to effectuate the outcome that is the heart of the research in the School of Education and Social Policy's mission. When I read Mr. Vedder's analysis, I was stunned that an academic would endeavor to compare students from the lowest quartiles with students from the highest economic quartiles and presume that the analysis is valid.

Before I address the specifics of Mr. Vedder's analysis, let me share a quote from him. In an interview in The Austrian Economic Newsletter dated Spring 1999, he said, "Data are highly subject to manipulation. Mainstream economists do this all the time. As Mises warned us, it is a mistake to let the data determine your theory instead of using data to illustrate a principle of economics you can explain through good sense."

So let's use good sense to discuss Mr. Vedder's data manipulation, flawed analysis, and even more flawed conclusions. His voice has been added to the ongoing dialogue about higher-education quality. However, common sense and years of research tell us that using graduation rates as a measure of quality is primarily a measure of class, family situation, and socio-economic status. What Mr. Vedder doesn't discuss in his article is how highly ranked institutions do with graduating populations of students where a significant number come from the lower quartiles of the academic and socio-economic spectrum.

The truth is that for the most part, highly ranked institutions don't try very often to education students from the lowest academic and economic quartiles. And when they do try, they are not very good at it. If you look at the disadvantaged students who do attend elite universities, they are much more likely to leave the institutions not having earned degrees. Institutions that serve wealthy students will always win if one's measures are only graduation and retention rates.

Institutions that serve large numbers of students from the lowest socio-economic quartiles suffer because the academy has not agreed upon a recognized metric to determine their impact. The same cohort of students who dropped out of an elite university often later enroll at Chicago State, where they earn degrees. What is unspoken about the above transaction is that the elite university suffers little from its failure to educate low-income cohort students, and universities like Chicago State earn no credit for educating them and becoming the degree-granting institutions. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System does not have a metric for this academic phenomenon.

The student cycle mentioned above is true, no matter how rigorous the curriculum, how dedicated the faculty, nor how good and available the academic support at institutions like Chicago State. Our faculty provide a quality educational experience and maintain standards. I have often said my students make more real-life decisions between 6 and 10 a.m. than students at an elite university make in a month.

If I could be granted two wishes, the first would be for time. I would like to give more hours in the day to my overcommitted students. I would give them the time they deserve to participate in all of the learning activities and services offered at Chicago State. My second wish would be to be able to provide each of my students with all of the socio-economic and environmental resources that students attending elite universities have. Because, in essence, that is what Mr. Vedder measured in his analysis. He measured fully funded and academically prepared full-time students against poorly funded and academically underprepared students.

I want to close by pointing out that Mr. Vedder's conclusion is political, not economic. I could have used my time to eviscerate the statistics he published, but I will leave that to others. I want to go back to his quote. It is a mistake for America to inform its policy on educating the poor by turning to a misguided use of economics to try to measure outcomes.

The reality is that after 40 years of study we have learned two things. You pay for either intervention or remediation in poor communities. After abandoning the Great Society intervention policies, we are left with only one tool, remediation, to lift all students from the despair of poverty and poor academic preparation. Chicago State's faculty and staff embrace, engage, and educate its students. In the past 10 years, Chicago State has graduated approximately 10,000 students, including almost one out of every five black students graduating from a public university in Illinois. Further, those 10,000 graduates are doctors, nurses, educators, lawyers, and business professionals.

Wayne D. Watson
Chicago State University