A Good “First Draft”
Measuring Up 2000 should be a spur to
efforts to gather more complete data
By Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro
Michael S. McPherson is president of Macalester College. Morton Owen
Schapiro is president of Williams College.
LAST FALL, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education presented its first state-by-state
report card for higher education.
Focusing on states makes sense for several reasons. Around 80 percent of students in postsec-ondary
education attend colleges that are owned, run and largely financed by state and local govern-ments.
Through student aid, states also provide significant support to students who attend private col-leges
and universities. In total, state governments provide a substantially larger share (nearly a third) of
financial support for all colleges and universities (including privates) than does the federal government,
which provides about 20 percent of total support. Key policy choices, about tuition and access, about
educational priorities, and about the relation between secondary and postsecondary education are
made at the state level.
This first in a series of biennial reports puts the focus on statewide results in undergraduate educa-tion,
rather than on the performance of particular institutions. The target audience in the first instance is
thus governors and state legislators, but the results are no doubt of interest also to leaders and trustees
at both public and private colleges.
There are certainly big limitations in this report, in good part because the study was forced to rely
on the limited public data available on a nationally comparable basis. A major challenge for the study’s
architects will be to respond thoughtfully and energetically to the critiques that their findings are sure to
provoke, making the second edition in two years more
comprehensive and defensible than this first outing.
The report should be a spur to efforts to gather more
Still, there is plenty to learn even from this “first
draft.” One striking lesson is the large variation across
states in preparing students for college. It is also clear,
not surprisingly, that preparation has a big impact on
participation and completion: States like Arizona and
Mississippi, with grades in the D range on preparation,
hardly ever get out of the C range in their performance
at getting students into and through college.
The report’s affordability index weighs not only
prices (net of financial aid discounts) at various types
of colleges but also provision of state-financed student
aid to low-income students. This treatment sends the
message that low public tuitions by themselves are not
enough to guarantee affordability—Wyoming, for
example, has reasonably low tuition but, with no state-based grant aid, it earns only a C+. New Jersey,
on the other hand, has relatively high tuitions, but a strong need-based aid program earns it a B.
Probably the weakest part of the report is in the assessment of “benefits” of higher education. States
score high if they have lots of college graduates, but there is no way to tell where they got those educa-tions.
One suspects that Colorado’s and Washington’s high scores, for example, may come in good part
from immigrants rather than home-grown graduates. Higher education also gets credit for high voting
rates and large charitable contributions, but there is no tracking of the link from the education system to
those pleasing outcomes.
These criticisms simply reflect that we are looking at a first effort to do a difficult but worthwhile job.
With any luck, the report will provoke a serious discussion in state government circles about the ade-quacy
both of the report and of the states’ performance in higher education. If entered in the right spirit,
that discussion will lead to improvement on both fronts.
Perhaps this analysis will inspire other groups to take a similarly serious look at higher education
measures. While any empirical analysis can be criticized for a variety of shortcomings, this work takes a
major step beyond the usual “beauty contest” approach to higher education rankings.