IMAGINE if the nation's colleges and universities were critically reviewed like Hollywood movies.
Or ranked like mutual funds for their return on investment.
Or measured and probed for their potential success like, well, a high school senior applying for college.
Or just plain graded, A to F.
That's not a novel concept. US News and World Report magazine has been ranking colleges since 1983, learning as it goes along that it's not a perfect exercise. College-bound students use the annual "America's Best Colleges" list like they do the Top Ten music hits: as a guide but not a guarantee of what they'll get.
But the rankings (by journalists, no less!) rankle much of the rank-and-file of higher education. The protesting professors argue that the apple of knowledge can often be an orange or plum for different students, thus defying any relative evaluation of colleges - and by no means should comparisons go public!
The light of accountability
But as in K-12 public schools which are increasingly using state-mandated testing, colleges are facing up to a growing public expectation that they be held accountable in the marketplace of learning.
As tuition costs rise, so too do hard questions about quality. And like plumbers or dentists, colleges are seen as a vendor which any consumer should be able to evaluate. Employers, too, would like a sort of SAT-like score to judge if a potential hire comes from an upper- or a lower-tier school. Colleges and universities know how each member of their faculty ranks in his or her field. Why shouldn't students know how colleges rank?
But the main question is simply: Who does a review and how to do it?
At present, colleges use an often secretive "accreditation" process. A committee of outside peers makes sure an institution is meeting the minimum academic standards. This external review is done voluntarily and helps a college decide the worth of course credits for students making transfers between institutions.
Judgments about a college made under national accreditation are more qualitative than by the numbers, and are mainly based on information given by the college. Confidentiality is maintained to ensure honest and open comments. The reputations of colleges thus remain very subjective and hard to interpret.
For private American colleges, an evaluation by the federal government would only erode the excellence and independence that has made them the envy of the world. State universities, however, are used to indirect controls by governors and legislatures.
A mix of professional self-regulation as well as external and publicized academic audits would be best. That would retain the spirit of independence, innovation, and faculty collaboration in colleges. Professors need their freedom but students also need to know, for instance, how much time a professor spends on research instead of teaching.
Americans know so little about college accreditation that about one-third say they would take a course from a nonaccredited school, according to a poll last year by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. With few comparisons between schools available, many people would not even bother to check the quality of a course.
National efforts at reform
The National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education said in 1998 that colleges and universities should be "more transparent" in explaining why tuition increases were necessary.
And a project called the National Survey of Student Engagement began last year to score colleges on what students actually learn inside and outside the classroom. This fall, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education will deliver a report card that will rank state universities - though not individual institutions - according to "outcomes," or data comparable across 50 states.
Milton Greenberg, former provost and interim president of American University, suggests in a commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education that reform of the accreditation system should include colleges making public a summary of performance reviews - in plain English. That would help students compare the specific qualities of each institution.
He also notes that Congress already requires colleges to disclose how their graduates fare on exams to be licensed as teachers.
Will similar accountability soon be demanded in general? Or will colleges do it themselves?
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society