College Guide


September 29, 2010 2:49 PM Measuring What Colleges Do

By Daniel Luzer

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


  • PQuincy on September 29, 2010 7:12 PM:

    "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."

    Not so fast! As I recall, I recently read an article (NY Times?) that hedge funds and investment banks generally preferred to hire fresh graduates from Ivy League colleges whose BAs were in the Humanities, rather than business, economics, or finance majors. They wanted the most articulate and sophisticated thinkers (and didn't want to have to unteach them whatever they learned in college economics courses, which rarely bears much relation to reality).

    Perhaps if this measure were instituted, it would be 'social science' and science departments that were axed.

  • Ron Mexico on September 30, 2010 5:53 AM:

    The biggest problem with the first proposal is that it does not measure what colleges do but measures what students do. Education does not produce widgets, and can't be assessed by a system which assumes better education=more widgets or better widgets. And as anyone knows who has taken a test prep course, the best way to improve test scores improve test-taking skills.

    The uni. where I work has discipline-specific assessment programs designed to measure the effectiveness of content delivery, not student learning. I'd be surprised if most other unis. don't have similar programs in place.

    The debate as always is driven not by any of these good or interesting (or daft) ideas but instead by the desire of state legislators to further cut uni. funding. The most misleading sentence in your post is when you suggest we've decided that "we want to get more Americans through college." In fact, since the heyday of higher ed funding in the 1970s, we as a society have decided the opposite, and have consistently taken measures that make college more expensive and less available. I completely agree that we need to revision the role of university education, and the structure and function of the institutions themselves. But what I see in practice is a kabuki debate carried on by puppets of big corporations that are concerned that we'll finally have a 21st. century tax structure that will cut into their profits, and won't benefit them any, since they can afford to have the pick of the litter of recent college grads.

  • Ron Mexico on September 30, 2010 5:59 AM:

    To add, by way of explanation, that there isn't a whole lot of info about this "Center" on the web, that is, who pays their bills. But here's an extract from their linkedin page:

    "In particular, it is interested in how the forces of the market can be used to make higher education more affordable and qualitatively better."

    And by "affordable," they mean:

    "'Affordability' means not only rising tuition and other costs to the consumer of education services, but more broadly the burden that colleges impose on society."

    You don't need a think tank to discern the source of rising "costs to the consumer"...most "state" institutions are lucky to receive 30% of their funding from state budgets, down from 80-100% 40 years ago. And I'm fascinated by the notion that we can improve higher ed by conceiving of colleges as "imposing a burden" on society.