Which is the best state for college? Illinois.

If all goes as expected, Demarcus Mitchell will graduate from Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville this spring - thanks in no small measure to a big financial lift.

Like his fellow students, he spent his share of hours in late-night study sessions and scribbling notes in class. But Mr. Mitchell acknowledges that perhaps the biggest reason he'll earn a degree is that he got plenty of aid from Illinois.

"My mother is a nurse's aide and my father doesn't work," he says. "They're not financially able to help. But the state has helped me a whole lot."

Such generous financial aid has helped Illinois take the No. 1 spot in a first-ever national report card for higher education. States like Massachusetts and California may be home to more prestigious universities, but for factors like affordability and preparation of students, the Prairie State comes out on top.

The findings are clear: States play a dramatic role in young Americans' attendance and success in college. And in the Information Age, when the economy depends on well-educated workers, this influence is more crucial than ever.

Crunching federal data, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose, Calif., sifted through statistics from two-year and four-year colleges - both public and private.

The result is "Measuring Up 2000," a report card grading states in five categories ranging from affordability to participation to "civic benefits" of higher education like higher rates of voting.

"This report card tells people their chances of getting good preparation for college, getting into college, and getting through it in the state they live in," says Patrick Callan, president of the center. "This creates another link in the accountability process for states."

It also gives states a road map to use to improve higher education. And it does it just like a teacher - by giving numerical and letter grades on each state's performance in each category.

It does not, however, provide an overall ranking. Yet Mr. Callan and others agree "the data is there" for a useful, "valid ranking." To get such a ranking, the Monitor averaged the report card's five category scores for each state to produce an overall score (see map).

In this overall measure, Illinois pops to the top. At the bottom of the pack are: West Virginia, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Callan denies the report is a mere affirmation that wealthy states produce better results. Wealth and race were found to be only minor factors.

But there have been other criticisms, as well. While generally applauding the report, some state officials say some information is misleading or out of date.

In Kentucky, for instance, new incentive programs to boost college participation rates may raise its future rankings. (The report cards are planned for every two years.)

In addition, Georgia got a D-plus in preparation and affordability - and an F in participation. A top Georgia official says the HOPE scholarship program has boosted participation and affordability - something not yet reflected in the grades.

"I won't quarrel too much with these numbers," says Stephen Portch, chancellor of the University System of Georgia. "We need reports like this to stimulate dialogue. We've managed to do well economically in Georgia - but we've done it by importing so many people who bring degrees with them."

The report card underscores Georgia's need "to grow our own talent," he says - to improve college-participation rates by getting more students to complete high school and take tougher K-12 courses.

Within other individual categories, the report card also reveals:

* About one-third of all states received a C-minus or less in the preparation category. In many states, for example, students didn't have access to high school honors courses to better prepare for college. Massachusetts got an A, with 59 percent of high-schoolers taking upper-level math classes, compared with just 27 percent in Alabama, which got an F.

* In college participation, 21 states got a C-minus or less. California got a B-plus, in part because about 38 percent of its 18- to 24-year-olds are enrolled. By contrast, Tennessee, which got a D-minus, had only 27 percent enrolled.

* About half of all full-time freshmen at four-year universities and colleges get a bachelor's degree in five years. Vermont is on top of this completion category with 68 percent finishing within five years. Louisiana is on bottom with 28 percent.

* Only a dozen states achieved a B or better grade in affordability. Illinois got an A, along with California, Utah, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. It actually provides more aid than the federal government does for low-income students. Maine and New Hampshire received an F.

A sixth category, "learning," was marked incomplete for every state. It turns out there are no uniform measures to gauge what students learn in college.

"We haven't a clue about how good the education was," says Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. "We have states spending billions of dollars and having no idea about the quality of the education they're investing in - that's absolutely extraordinary."

Callan says the report gave states an "incomplete" to encourage them to come up with ways to measure quality.

See www.csmonitor.com for state-by-state rankings in each category.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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