Clear the ivy on academia

Colleges should welcome a federal role in judging their success.

In a yearly drama, millions of high school students received letters in recent days telling them if they can go to the college of their choice. But this spring, colleges themselves faced a kind of acceptance or rejection – by the US Department of Education.

The department began closed-door meetings earlier this year with officials of institutions of higher education to discuss possible federal rules that would open up the schools to regular public scrutiny on the quality of their teaching and learning.

If the project goes through, it could be either a heavy-handed government intrusion into the finest education system in the world, or it could bring needed accountability and lower tuition to a creaking system that's failing many of its graduates. (For one view on this proposal, see today's Opinion page.)

While US universities are the envy of the world, only 4 in 10 graduates have the comprehension skills to compare viewpoints in editorials such as this one. And despite their pivotal role in keeping the American economy competitive, only about half of seniors are asked to write lengthy research papers.

Leading this effort is Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Building on President Bush's No Child Left Behind law that put standardized testing into public K-12 schools, she wants to make sure the billions of taxpayers' dollars that support colleges and universities are well spent. More than that, she sees government as a protector of education "consumers."

This puts a cold wind in the ivied halls of higher ed. Educators are already upset at the influence of annual college rankings by U.S. News & World Report, which many dismiss as looking mainly at the reputation and "inputs" of schools rather than "learning outcomes."

The schools also cite the diversity of purposes that each college offers, perhaps making it impossible to judge them by federal cookie-cutter standards.

Rather than challenge colleges directly, Ms. Spellings is using her department's regular approval process for regional, private agencies that accredit colleges, a type of peer-review regulation. (Federal student loans are tied to such approvals.) The accreditors, who largely act in secret, collect and compare vast amounts of information about each school. Sensibly, Spellings wants these assessments on websites for students to use.

The far more difficult proposal calls for more rigor in such assessments – if not outright measurements of what students actually learn.

Making public each college's effects on graduates would, indeed, help prospective students. Done badly, however, measurable national standards might also distort many nonmeasurable, long-term results of education, such as instilling a passion for learning or an ethical sense. One way around this standoff would be for the department to simply insist that accreditors and schools put forth their own objective criteria for success in learning.

Many colleges have already started benchmarking themselves better. The central issue of "what's good enough?" for schools can be addressed later, once there is more transparency in assessing college performance.

Negotiations begin again April 24, with the federal rules expected to take force by July 2008. Both students and schools that rely on federal money should welcome this call for more accountability on behalf of taxpayers.

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