Monday, November 12, 2007

The College Learning Portrait - Great Leap Forward

By Richard Vedder

I am usually complaining about the University Establishment, the host of organizations in the DuPont Circle vicinity of our nation's capital that seem so often to fight any attempts to improve our higher education system, parochially seeking to maintain some semblance of an unacceptable status quo. However, I am extremely pleased with how two groups, the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges (NASULGC) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) have responded to the Spellings Commission call for more performance measures, transparency, and accountability. They deserve kudos.

These groups have just unveiled their "College Learning Portrait," a much debated effort to meet the crying need for better measures of institutional success. It is not perfect, and if I were czar of the higher education system (a frightening thought even to me), I would strengthen some of the reporting requirements; but it is a document that is a product of compromise, and if widely implemented would be a huge step forward. For example, did the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have a good year in 2007? Who knows? With the College Learning Portrait, it appears we will have a much better idea. Some big players (e.g., UNC, University of Wisconsin, California State University system) have already agreed to participate. The University of California system has said "no", using the tired old line that institutional autonomy is being violated (which never seems to bother them if there is enough money attached to the mandates imposed).

From news accounts, it appears that the CLP will improve our admittedly somewhat erroneous statistics on student retention and graduation rates. Many kids transfer from one institution to another, which is not taken into account in the current IPEDS statistics of the Department of Education. The CLP will try to give some indication of what students do with their time --requiring schools to use and report results of an instrument such as the National Survey of Student Engagement.
Although as Charles Miller keeps appropriately reminding me, the Nessie test (and other similar ones) does not measure student learning --the alleged purpose of college. The CLP program takes care of that, requiring institutions to significantly sample freshmen and seniors on tests designed to give some indication of learning outcomes --exams prepared by the American College Testing (ACT) folks, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), or the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) --which people tell me is a great test but no one has let me see it so I can be my own judge.

The CLP project is not perfect. It is important that the learning testing be done in a scientifically responsible fashion, with decent sized, random samples of both freshman and seniors to permit some measure of "value added." Samples sizes of fewer than 100, for example, would be suspect. I can understand the universities do not want testing to become too intrusive, but sampling a few hundred students in a random or at least reasonably unbiased fashion on campuses with five digit numbers of undergraduates would not seem overly burdensome and could greatly improve our knowledge of what colleges are doing. That would be a great and important development.

As to the University of California and other schools of the "public be damned" school of thought, I say let us shame them, ostracize them and, most importantly, cut off money to them. How about removing federal tax deductibility to any school that does not administer the CLP? (I can hear private school maven David Warren screaming already, arguing that life as we know it is about ready to end!!). Why don't state legislatures mandate participation of public institutions as a condition for funding? Maybe a bit strong, but it shows that the government has some leverage which it should use. The libertarian side of me (which is a huge side), says that the government should get out of the higher education business altogether, but if it is going to be in the business and use lots of taxpayer resources, some performance requirements are warranted.

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