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A Better Measure of College Quality?

Amidst all of the recent fuss over college rankings, the president of Lewis and Clark College ran an interest op-ed piece in the Washington Post this week. In it, he questions the conventional wisdom among private higher education institutions that a federal database tracking student achievement in higher education might turn into yet another bureaucratic federal program, infringing on student privacy, and leading to “No Student Left Behind”-type testing.

He writes:

We in academia know remarkably little about what emerges from the vast and diverse system of higher education. Why do students drop out? Where do they go when they do? What factors in primary and secondary school, beyond grade-point averages, class rankings and standardized test scores, best predict their success or failure in college? What impact does their educational experience have on our students' success or failure after graduation?

We are ill-equipped to answer these questions. Without comprehensive information, both individual institutions and society lack the tools to assess how the system is working, how it is failing and how it might be improved.

Proponents of the database -- including, interestingly, many leaders of the nation's community colleges and public universities -- view it as a means for educators to achieve the accountability for which lawmakers and the public are clamoring.
Obviously, any elite private institutions has a reputation to protect, and it would not want to willingly release any data demonstrating that a student can get a similar educational experience paying only a quarter of the price at a public university. But still, aren’t we all supposed to be interested in the students’ best interest?

If the student privacy issues are addressed, I can see such a database being a great boon to higher education in America. Schools would instantly become more accountable for the quality of the education that they would provide, and the public would finally have meaningful ways to measure and assess the quality of an institution. After all, instead of measuring how wealthy and well-educated a school’s entering undergraduates (which is essentially what U.S. News does), we should really be rankings institutions by the quality of the undergraduate experience and how much they actually educate students.

It would be interesting to know how the Cornell administration stands on these issues. If anybody out there knows, feel free to shoot me an email.

And obviously, U.S. News would never go for it, because they are trying to sell magazines.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on September 01, 2006 (#)

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