Obama plan to rank colleges: Will it raise thinking skills?

Congress appears lukewarm about President Obama's proposal to rank colleges and universities. One reason may be that it fails to measure what today's employers want: Graduates with higher-order thinking skills.

AP Photo
President Obama speaks at Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y., on Aug. 22, pitching an overhaul of federal student aid that would link dollars to the Education Department’s ratings of colleges and universities.

On a two-day bus tour of schools last week, President Obama asked Congress to support a new plan to rank colleges that rely on federal money. The plan has not been warmly welcomed.

The proposed rankings would include such metrics as the percentage of students who finish school and the earnings of graduates. Federal aid would flow more easily to schools with higher rankings, especially those that hold down tuition. College applicants and their parents would have better information in picking a school.

Among criticisms of the Obama plan, some lawmakers said it would not solve the biggest complaint of higher education today: Employers are more skeptical than ever about the worth of college credentials.

The problem isn’t just grade inflation, which is serious enough – the percentage of A’s given by teachers having nearly tripled in recent decades. Rather, the modern workplace demands far more than the kind of subject-area knowledge that colleges and universities teach – much of which is available through an Internet search. Today’s employers want graduates who come with a tool kit of cognitive skills useful for a fast-changing global economy.

These skills – dubbed competency-based learning – include critical thinking, problem solving, quantitative reasoning, and the ability to critique arguments. In short, graduates must know how to ask the questions that need to be asked for creative solutions in competitive businesses.

A graduate’s grade-point average, which is based mostly on discipline-based information, doesn’t always indicate a good thinker. Nor does graduating from a highly ranked school. A famous 2011 study, titled “Academically Adrift,” by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, found at least 45 percent of college students showed little or no improvement in critical-thinking skills after their first two years in college.

Perhaps that explains why 57 percent of Americans told Pew pollsters last year that colleges fail to provide students with good value for the money. And a 2010 survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found only 1 in 4 employers says colleges prepare students for the global economy.

If lawmakers want to help colleges, students, and employers on the education front, they should look at new types of objective scorecards that measure a graduate’s work-ready skills. These tests offer an alternative credential for graduates to hand potential employers. But they also will help hold colleges and universities accountable for the quality of their teaching.

Perhaps one of the best tests is the latest Collegiate Learning Assessment, known as CLA+. Produced by the New York-based nonprofit research organization Council for Aid to Education, it offers a credible benchmark on how well someone can “access, structure, and use information.” The test costs $35 and takes about 90 minutes.

A number of states have moved to tie government aid for colleges to such tests and other measures of “learning outcomes.” And a few hundred colleges plan to administer the CLA+ tests this year. The tests also offer a way for students who take free or for-profit online courses to gain a credible credential for employment.

Advanced economies that rely on innovation need advanced thinkers, or those adept at higher-order skills, such as perception and creativity. Mr. Obama and Congress need to look at changing the meaning and purpose of that sheepskin called a college degree.

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