Congress flunks in higher education act

Colleges that take taxpayer money must be held accountable for how much students actually learn.

It's fair to say that the latest college rankings from U.S. News and World Report, due out Aug. 22, will be more widely read than the Higher Education Act signed last week by President Bush. There's a good reason for that, and it's not because the act is 1,158 pages long and a foot high.

College-bound students often use the magazine's annual rankings to find the best schools to apply to. As imperfect as these comparisons are, the rankings have shaken up higher education.

Unfortunately, the rankings mainly measure prestige and inputs – such as SAT scores – and fail to satisfy a demand to know which schools deliver on the quality of education achieved by graduates. As Congress sought to renew the Higher Education Act – first passed in 1965 – the Bush administration and some in Congress wanted government to hold colleges accountable for such "learning outcomes."

Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on these institutions or are given in student loans, and yet taxpayers know next to nothing about their return on this investment.

The university lobby, however, rose up against the idea of providing an objective measure for consumers on educational quality. Professors joined in this effort, claiming government cannot withhold money from schools by using the same measuring stick for all schools. That would infringe on academic freedom, they insist.

They're right in that scholarship must be free of federal interference. But given the billions in federal aid, professors should be measured on the results of their core mission, education.

In the end, lawmakers succumbed to this lobby. They not only ditched the idea of providing data on quality, they barred the Education Department from doing so on its own. So this act is notable more for what it lacks – or prevents – than for what it does.

Fortunately, many schools are willing to be measured by private groups, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment or the National Survey of Student Engagement. Such surveys serve as the industry's answer to the US News rankings. But it is up to each school whether to release their own survey data, so rankings are difficult. Most colleges still resist knowing how well they compare in learning outcomes.

In passing this act, Congress did not balk at one consumer demand: reining in tuition hikes. Colleges with the highest and lowest tuitions will now be ranked, while the top 5 percent with the biggest tuition increases will need to justify their increases and reveal plans to control them.

And in another step to rein in tuition rises, states will be penalized if they do not maintain steady spending for state schools.

But Congress rejected two good ideas: requiring schools to reveal "merit" aid for students from wealthy families and to provide incoming freshmen with a four-year schedule of expected tuitions.

This act does make an effort to improve the access and affordability of higher education but fails in delivering on the most important aspect: accountability for quality.

Without that, it may be difficult to ensure America's colleges and universities remain the best in the world. Perhaps Congress won't wait years to fix this lapse.

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