Focusing Public Attention
A national report card for higher education is long overdue
By Tom Imeson
Tom Imeson is past president of the
Oregon State Board of Higher Education.
WHAT’S TROUBLING about the nation’s first national report card on higher education isn’t all
about grades. It’s also about the defensive attitude many have taken to having an independent
party grade our national preparedness for higher education.
Many were disappointed when the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education issued its
first report card late last fall. No one earned straight A’s. The B’s were scattered. C’s were abundant. But
what really hurt were those D’s and F’s.
The response was predictable. Some expressed outrage. Others found fault with the data. Still oth-ers
assigned their own grades to the report.
What’s clear is that no one liked being told that their state had failed in its commitment to students.
Yet maybe that is exactly what it takes to focus greater public attention on our nation’s interwoven prob-lems
at all levels of education.
My state received several low marks for participation and affordability, and our rating sparked the
interest of many people. As proud Oregonians, we might have quibbled with the methodology and data
by which those marks were compiled, or with the initiatives that were overlooked in the analysis, but
there’s no denying their basic accuracy. Any independent observer of education in Oregon would likely
have given the same grades.
As a university trustee and former governor’s chief-of-staff, I am not one bit pleased by those marks.
But neither am I discouraged by my state’s relative showing. In fact, I am hopeful that the revelation of
our weakness may help to stir public passion toward corrective and consistent action.
I applaud the effort to develop a national report card for higher education. It is long overdue.
We need a national report card to help our states measure their own progress, which is more
important than simply comparing one state with another. And real meaning can come from having the
ability to document performance over time, and from the credibility of having the analysis done by an
We also need a national report card because we need an analytical tool for evaluating education
systems and outcomes—one that the general public can readily recognize, understand and rely upon.
We may differ about what standards should be evaluated and how best to take the measure of our
work. But we should use our differences of opinion to build an understanding for consensus and to con-struct
a set of clearly defined terms, commonly
understood and succinctly communicated.
For example, I take particular exception to the
assumption that four years is the proper standard to
measure college completion. My own view is that
many students are non-traditional in how they work
toward completion. I have difficulty with measuring
college completion within four years, because I
believe such a standard fails to consider far too
many contemporary students who, in their mind,
and in mine, are making satisfactory progress toward
completion of a college career.
Finally, I believe we also need a national report
card to help remind America that all of us share in
the accountability of our schools’ performance. The success or failure of this nation’s ability to prepare
tomorrow’s youth is not the sole responsibility of any one state or educational system. It is a responsibil-ity
we share with each other as citizens in every state in this nation. And if we have failed, we need to
know when and where we have been unsuccessful, so that we can act quickly and appropriately to
improve our collective performance on behalf of this nation’s future.