To accompany the end of this year’s Vermont college graduations last weekend, the Burlington Free Press’s Tim Johnson writes an interesting piece about the true mystery of actually learning at the college level. As Johnson explains:

In most colleges, students’ acquisition of
knowledge is appraised regularly on a course-
by-course basis via exams, graded projects.

What’s missing at many schools is an appraisal
of learning across all fields, across all four years.
And the key forms of learning — the ones that
educators say reflect whether a college is doing
its educational job — take the form of critical,
analytical thinking, problem solving, and clear

Some colleges are beginning to assess some components of learning. That’s why people now write articles about standardized tests like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency, and the Measure of Academic Progress. While the validity of some of these tests is questionable, it looks like a promising way to think about assessing American colleges.

But are we ever going to get to a place where people actually use information about learning to make decisions about where to go to college? Probably not anytime soon.

As University of Iowa sociologist Michael Sauder explains, measuring schools by student learning gains means that the schools that admit poorly prepared students would do better:

They’d see more movement. But Harvard, for instance, actually is a good school. The fact that students don’t move as dramatically doesn’t mean the school isn’t any good. When people try to measure student learning I wish them a lot of luck. I think it could be done. I’m not really sure how.

It’s hard to find someone willing to admit this, but college isn’t just about knowledge acquisition and learning. It’s not even, necessarily, the most important part of why people go to college.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer