Friday, November 17, 2006

Higher ed not immune from audits of its performance

Americans have good reason to be on guard when federal government representatives show up and say, "We're here to help you."

Yet, not every offer of federal help ends in a useless new bureaucracy that squanders millions of tax dollars and fails in its intended purpose.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is mounting a useful project that would apply some yardsticks to U.S. universities and colleges to measure their performance with students.

Critics instantly stigmatized her study as tantamount to comparing college performance with automobiles, which educators say can't be done. Secretary Spellings rejects naysayers and suggests some colleges believe in "give us the money and leave us alone."

With more than 11 million students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, and many of them beneficiaries of government-backed student loans, scholarships and research grants, taxpayers have a right to know how well public funds are being used and whether they're making a difference in the quality of learning.

There are useful models that can be created to measure higher education's performance without imposing a one-size-fits-all matrix or dictates out of Washington on how to teach.

No less than one of higher education's pre-eminent academicians, former (and now interim) Harvard President Derek Bok, sides with Spelling's objectives. He says higher education has failed to make a systematic effort to elevate student learning. "We have a long way to go before convincing the federal government that we don't need some nudging from outside," he told college financial officials recently.

Taxpayer parents of college students also have a reason to support Spellings' quest for grading higher education. With some parents ladling out as much as a year's household income for one year of college, they deserve answers about the quality of their children's learning.

Recent snapshots of student knowledge reveal substantial shortcomings—inability to balance checkbooks, inability to locate U.S. states, other countries, and language deficiencies.

One vital question is whether some colleges, in scrambling for new students and their tuition to keep academe solvent, are relaxing standards.

Well-educated college grads are of vital national strategic importance. In the fiercely competitive global economy, the best-educated leaders will help this nation hold commanding leadership.

The United States can't afford to be left behind because colleges don't do their jobs. It won't hurt colleges to prove that they are.

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