Higher Ed Panel Calls for College Database

A commission assembled by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings finds that college is too expensive. The panel says students and parents would benefit from a common database that explains what different schools offer.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Today, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings' response to a warning about American higher education - the warning is that college is too expensive. And it comes from the National Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

That same group also said that parents and students need more information about what they're buying. It says colleges and universities should create a consumer-friendly database to explain just what students are learning at different schools. Some educators read that as a call for higher ed testing.

Here's NPR's Larry Abramson.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Right now, many students and parents rely on magazine rankings and other comparison lists to choose a college or university. Doug Bennett, president of Indiana's Earlham College, is not too proud of that information.

Mr. DOUG BENNETT (President, Earlham College, Indiana): It's rumors. It's absolutely pathetic data. Very little of it having anything to do with whether anyone is actually learning. It's, it's embarrassing.

ABRAMSON: The commission appointed by Secretary Spellings agrees. Commission member Katie Haycock of the Education Trust says the current informal system focuses on which students schools currently attract or how many students colleges turn away. Haycock would like to hear...

Ms. KATIE HAYCOCK (Education Trust): Better and more accurate information publicly available about the effectiveness of higher education. That means who gets in, how many of them actually graduate and what they've learned along the way.

ABRAMSON: But how do you figure that out without testing students? Elementary and high schools around the country have had to embrace testing in recent years. But commission member David Ward says that American higher education is too diverse for our uniform test.

Mr. David WARD (American Council on Education): Many students choose different kinds of colleges, different emphases, people go to Caltech for a different reason they go to Williams - and would you want the same test?

ABRAMSON: Ward is president of the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities. The call for accountability was just one reason why Ward was the only commission member who decided not to sign onto the panel's final report. Ward said he agrees people need more information but he's concerned that the final recommendation could lead to tests that confuse people.

Mr. WARD: You know is that decision made by colleges? Or is it going to made by the secretary of education? Would it be made by the Congress? Who's going to make the decision on what these measures were and whether there're going to be any expert panel, you know, to conclude that these were really good measures.

ABRAMSON: The idea of higher-ed testing has already sparked a lot of debate. Doug Bennett of Earlham College says that coming up with an actual test will be an even hotter topic - one that the commission, he says, completely dodged.

Mr. BENNETT: Having lifted up the issue, they've spent virtually no time saying what good assessment of student learning will look like. And if the issue's important, and I think it is, it was worth finding a way to say something about it.

ABRAMSON: In fact, this is not a new idea. Roger Benjamin is president of the Council for Aid to Education, which administers the collegiate learning assessment - a test that relies on essays to measure what students in different disciplines have learned.

Mr. ROGER BENJAMIN (Council for Aid to Education): Frankly, we've relied on -more of a choice - much too much. They just don't do the job when you're trying to both measure and stimulate these complex reasoning skills

ABRAMSON: Right now, the results of the collegiate learning assessment are used internally and are not released to the public. Schools are clearly worried about endorsing a new set of public assessments that might change the established hierarchy in higher education.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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