Gauging education bang for tuition buck

The world's most-admired system of higher education can't get enough respect to be left alone. The latest assault on American colleges and universities comes from the US education secretary and a panel she appointed. Their demand: Show us results.

In essence, what Secretary Margaret Spellings and her 19-member Commission on the Future of Higher Education have recently proposed (among other recommendations) is that colleges receiving various types of federal money be held accountable for the quality of learning they provide.

They're asking for a sort of "no college student left behind" law, similar to the 2001 one that imposed standardized testing for lower grades in public schools. Only in this case, the idea is to provide incentives for colleges to test students and find out how they are performing against academic goals, and then post this information on a federal website to help pre-college students better judge which institution to attend.

Ms. Spellings likens the idea to buying a car: You go online and compare the data about the performance and price of different vehicles. She wants a database with similar transparency and ease for those shopping for colleges.

Right now, the yearly ranking of colleges by U.S. News and World Report magazine provides some help. But that survey mainly looks at inputs, such as money spent on education, and also relies on reputation. Regional bodies that accredit schools of higher learning act in similar ways.

In recent years, two surveys – the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Collegiate Learning Assessment – have tried to measure "outcomes," or what students actually get out of their costly education, such as experience in a community-based project related to a course.

It is that new focus on results – or measuring the education bang for the tuition buck – that now has been picked up by federal government.

Hold on, say the powerful lobbies for colleges in Washington. While they would very much like more federal money for higher education, such as research funds, they say higher education is too diverse to impose national standards. How do you measure such abilities as civic activism, ethical reasoning, creativity, or joy for lifelong learning?

Public sentiment, however, has drifted toward seeing a college education largely as a career launcher. And resentment is mounting against tuitions that rise faster than inflation and family income, creating public pressure to demand more of colleges.

One way out of this impasse is for government to be flexible in defining the standards for performance. Many schools already gauge the results of their education. These internal assessments, as well as the national surveys measuring "student outcomes," can be made public, and then collated in a federal website. Government could hold schools accountable for their education based on their individual missions.

There are dangers to imposing "one size fits all" criteria on colleges. At the same time, colleges might find common criteria among themselves in how to measure success. Spellings and college leaders can surely work together to find a consumer-friendly, performance database.

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