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A Flawed Model?
We are concerned about the model assessment plan advanced in the article by M. Dayne Aldridge and Larry Benefield (May/June 1998, p.22). Some of the ideas presented do not agree with ABET's Engineering Criteria 2000, or with the criteria of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

SACS does not accept the use of grades as a legitimate assessment option for many reasons: a student's grade is often an inaccurate reflection of what the student knows or can do; test construction and grading methods vary widely from instructor to instructor; focusing on course grades does nothing to promote curriculum integrity; and most competencies outlined by ABET are not gained fully from individual courses.

The new ABET criteria emphasize documenting the existence of competencies (an outcome focus), not documenting that appropriate processes exist (a process focus), as the Aldridge and Benefield model advocates. What practicing engineer would design a machine to produce widgets and not check frequently to see that the widgets produced are within tolerance? The approach described assumes that a student completing the curriculum has the requisite competencies. However, the only way to know if those competencies actually exist is to measure them directly. That is, correctly, the clear focus of both ABET and SACS.

Finally, the model presented is overly complicated and potentially confusing. The intent of the ABET criteria is actually quite simple: engineering graduates should have certain specific competencies, the faculty should determine expected and actual levels of performance on those competencies, and the school must then address the discrepancies with the goal of improving the actual performance.

Our overriding concern is the model's deviation from assessment methodology compatible with the SACS accreditation criteria, which we believe is mirrored in wording and intent by the new ABET criteria. With the adoption of EC 2000, we now tell engineering departments that if they meet ABET criteria, they will certainly meet the SACS criteria and avoid duplicating efforts. However, if schools actually follow the Aldridge/Benefield model, the result will be additional work for the colleges at a minimum and a loss of federal funding and course transferability in the worst case.
David G. Underwood
Clemson University
J.Joseph Hoey
North Carolina State University
John Muffo
Virginia Tech
Marge Tebo-Messina
Winthrop University

The authors respond:
Our article was derived from a paper presented at the 1997 FIE conference titled "A Planning Model for ABET Engineering Criteria 2000." At PRISM's request, the emphasis of the article was shifted from "planning" to "assessment." In retrospect, we should have placed a stronger emphasis on "planning" in the opening paragraphs of the article.

Some have read the article as an authoritative statement about the details of assessment. That was not our intent. The model was intended only to provide faculty members and administrators a common base from which to plan the transition to the EC 2000 criteria, and to demonstrate how an engineering program's assessment processes should work with others across campus.
M. Dayne Aldridge
Larry D. Benefield
Auburn University

Research Costs and Rising Tuition Rates
The brief article entitled "Do Research Costs Raise Tuition Charges?" (December 1997, p.10) presents an uncritical view of the National Science Foundation document on tuition and research, suggesting that there is no correlation between tuition costs and the amount of research conducted. This conclusion, however, flies in the face of the evidence presented in the report. A look at the 1994 tuition costs for the four different private institutions tells the story:
Research–$17,038
Doctoral–$12,875
Comprehensive–$10,194
Baccalaureate–$10,450

There is little difference between the last two categories, and only a slight increase for the doctoral universities. What causes the big jump for the research universities? Is it better laboratories? Hardly. My experience is that the bigger the university, the more dismal the undergraduate laboratories. Smaller classes? Clearly not, since the big universities invented the 500-person lecture. Better teachers? No way. Tenure at research universities systematically weeds out the dedicated teachers and promotes the exceptional researchers who often care little about undergraduate instruction.

It seems to me that the only reasonable conclusion is that yes, undergraduate tuition does support research. That is not necessarily bad, of course. Students choose to attend research universities and pay high tuition because the university's reputation will help them get better jobs and the alumni network will serve them well throughout their careers. But at the very least don't we have to be honest, rather than ascribing the increase to some mysterious "common underlying dynamics," as the author of the NSF report suggests?
P. Aarne Vesilund
Duke University

Corrections

  • J. Paul Turda's letter to the editor mentioning the E3 project (April 1998, p.7) should have indicated that graduates from this program were better prepared than graduates from conventional curricula (not master's degree holders) to enter industrial employment and/or prestigious universities' graduate schools.
  • A photo of Jack McGourty, a mini-plenary speaker at the 1998 ASEE Annual Conference (September 1998, p.39), was misidentified as Thomas Angelo, another mini-plenary presenter.

PRISM apologizes for the errors.

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