A better way to shop for a college

When 257 colleges release scores on the quality of their education, they earn an A+ for transparency.

A prime sport in higher ed is bashing US News & World Report's college rankings. The main gripe? Schools can't be easily compared. But last week, 257 schools did just that. They put up scores on the Web sizing up their ability to educate.

This new type of benchmarking, known as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), measures real learning experiences on campuses – far from different the US News's rankings, which rely heavily on school reputation, SAT scores, and resources.

NSSE (pronounced "nessie") has been in use for eight years by hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States and Canada – but only to help them better themselves. Only this year did NSSE leaders organize a mass release of scores by willing schools.

The surveys by NSSE ask freshmen and seniors how much teachers actually work with them, and about a school's level of academic challenge, collaborative learning, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment. The premise: Students who are actively engaged in their postsecondary education will learn more and be more successful in a career.

This alternative method of assessment should become a valuable tool for college applicants as they shop for the best school at the lowest cost. And if schools courageously release NSSE scores, this public matchup of educational quality should help drive better reforms.

A national commission on higher ed, appointed by US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, recommended last year that colleges be held accountable for their use of taxpayers' money by publishing NSSE results or other independent benchmarks. The department's attempt this year to require such transparency, however, was stymied after powerful lobbies representing higher-education institutions persuaded key US senators to block the move.

This multibillion-dollar service industry, which is key to America's competitiveness, has long tried to dodge the sunshine of competitive assessment. But many of its leaders have moved beyond grousing about the US News rankings. They are designing alternative measurements in a bow to education consumers who want to know what their precious tuition dollars will bring them.

Top-ranked schools in the US News list are the most reluctant to challenge that magazine's system or participate in new methods, especially the increasingly popular NSSE. After all, they are already seen as being on top – even though by NSSE standards of "educational outcomes" they may not be. Their low participation in NSSE, wrote former Harvard President Derek Bok in a 2006 book, helps confirm the impression that schools at the top of the US News rankings "are rarely leaders in seeking innovative efforts to improve student learning on their campuses."

Even lower-ranked schools are often afraid of public accountability. Most of the schools using NSSE didn't release their data, which indicate that many probably have less-than-average scores.

But eventually NSSE and similar measuring tools should help end the self-accountability of academe and force better teaching from faculty and college administrators. Schools can't evade the new era of accountability in services. It's better they compete with US News than complain about it.

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