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Measure for measure.

Kevin Carey's premise in his recent article ("Is Our Students Learning?" September) seems to be that colleges are deliberately hiding information which--if made public--would allow the creation of a perfect ranking system for institutions of higher education. Private colleges are portrayed as the chief villain in this tale of evasion and subterfuge. On all counts, he's just plain wrong.

Colleges and universities are appropriately accountable to more stakeholders than any other American business enterprise I can imagine. Their stakeholders include the students who attend, the parents who pay the bills; the alumni who remain tied to and support their institutions; the faculty and staff who operate and are paid by the institutions; the employers who hire the students; the governments that subsidize and regulate the institutions and gain extensive research knowledge from them; the communities in which the institutions are situated; and the general public who contribute taxes and reap the benefits of an educated citizenry.

If colleges and universities struggle with ways to show they are being appropriately accountable, it is largely because of the tremendous amount and diversity of information which they must, should--and do--produce to the satisfaction of these various stakeholders.

The perfect ranking system? Colleges and universities do not make cars. They do not stamp out widgets. They graduate human beings who, at the end of four years, cannot be rubberstamped, "quality-tested and approved."

College and universities graduate people who come to them already molded. A large measure of individual effort is involved in learning. The institution itself is only one factor, albeit a critical and important one, in the lives of the students attending the institution. This does not absolve the institution of the responsibility of educating and supporting these individuals to the very best of their abilities; however, it does mean that an institution cannot give a student one test at the end of four years and declare them forevermore failures or successes in life.

Moreover, there are many views of success. Carey wants to judge institutions by a narrow workforce standard: how quickly their students find jobs, get promoted, and how much they earn. American society is not comprised solely of investment bankers, doctors, lawyers, and other high-earning professionals. The artists, teachers, social workers, small-business owners, homemakers, and many other lower-earning individuals among us bring a richness and quality to our society, and enjoy fulfillments in their lives that are simply unquantifiable. While colleges and universities should unquestionably work toward preparing individuals who are work-ready and attractive to employers, it is outrageous to deem students unsuccessful if they graduate and choose other paths in life than those careers with high-octane financial rewards. These are the complicated realities that make a simple one-size-fits-all, or one-test-fits-all, notion of accountability unworkable.

Unfortunately, in today's world, it is easier to take the cynical view that an institution is looking out after its own interests rather than taking a principled stance on behalf of its students. However, the truth of the matter is that private colleges do want to protect the privacy of their students. Even if federally collected student data were ascertained to be the most secure on the planet (doubtful in this day and age of almost daily large-scale security breaches of federally held individual data), the private colleges would still be against collection of individual student information based on the principle that we do not believe the price of enrolling in college should be permanent cradle-to-grave entry into a federal registry. A centralized national database tracking college students, their academic progress, financial aid information, enrollment, and performance in their careers runs profoundly counter to the democratic underpinnings of higher education and American society.

Private colleges are for answering important policy questions and improving information about their institutions through the collection of voluntarily submitted (by students) sample data, which statistical theory tells us can be used to make inferences about the population. That's what federal law requires; let's not violate it to satisfy an appetite for data for data's sake.


President, National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
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Author:Warren, David L.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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