The Limits of Institutional Measures for Assessing State, Regional and National Postsecondary Productivity

July 2016
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Policymakers should be at least as interested in analyzing productivity in terms of student characteristics and geography as they are in the productivity of institutions relative to one another and over time.


Gauging academic productivity for public policy purposes requires a framework different from that used for institutional or departmental analyses, since system-wide productivity trends can differ from what any one institution within that system is experiencing. This paper lays out an approach for defining and assessing productivity within and among postsecondary institutions. The author makes a data-driven case that while typical measures of productivity may be useful for institution management, they can yield misleading results when generalized to larger regions, states or the nation.

Key Insights
The composition of the postsecondary education sector is constantly and rapidly changing and varies over time and across regions.
Changes in the composition of the postsecondary sector, and not just changes within the institutions themselves, are often the key variables in long-term trends and relative state or regional performance.
Policymakers and postsecondary advocates have a responsibility to consider student time, not just institutional resources, as an input in assessing aggregate productivity.
Productivity measures need to estimate the net impact of postsecondary participation on different populations of students or potential students.
Resources and tools for better state- or regional-level productivity measurement are increasingly available.

This paper is one of five in the TIAA Institute Higher Education Series: Understanding Academic Productivity. The TIAA Institute undertook this initiative in support of the National Association of College and University Business Officers’ Economic Models Project, which aims to provide colleges and universities with knowledge, ideas and tools to advance the difficult structural, cultural and political changes required for moving to more sustainable economic models.