Measuring What Colleges Do

Richard Vedder over at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity has an interesting piece today about trying to find a “bottom line” for college quality. What do colleges actually produce ? As Vedder explains:

I have a modest proposal of three ways that we could get immensely important information that would make for more informed customers and donors, stimulate healthy competition between schools, and promote greater concern for undergraduate education by the schools themselves, particularly the national research universities.

Vedder’s first idea is about measuring how much students learned. “Require all schools receiving federal funds to require newly entering students to take one of the following tests: ACT, SAT, Critical Learning Assessment, or the National Assessment of Educational Progress Test administered at age 17 in English and Mathematics.” Then administer the test when students graduate. How much did students improve?

His other proposals involve workforce participation. One plan would have colleges submit student information to the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS, in turn, would publish information about average graduates’ salaries every few years. Another option would have companies provide information about where their employees went to college, categorizing most and least effective workers by college attendance.

Vedder calls these ideas “a modest proposal.” They’re actually not modest at all, or even feasible in many cases. There are a lot of problems with the ideas Vedder suggests, not the least of which is that “some laws would have to change to allow these proposals to be fully operative,” as he puts it.

Part of the problem is that it’s very hard to measure the “bottom line” of colleges objectively when society hasn’t really decided what college is supposed to do. While there certainly is something valid about the trying to measure college learning, just comparing SATs in to SATs out is a very superficial measure of academic quality. It would seem to merely reward schools for being nonselective.

Both measures of workforce participation seem dreadfully vocational in nature. If students went to college only in order to get high-paying jobs or be productive members of a company team, universities might well eliminate independent thought or fields like the humanities and fine arts altogether.

So are the measures great? Well no, but they together make interesting point. What actually happens to students when they go into college? We’ve apparently reached a place where as a culture we’ve decided that we want to get more Americans through college. It’s worth considering what we want them to look like when they get out.

Daniel Luzer

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