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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview
 

How Does Measuring Up 2000 Measure Up?

New state-by-state report card for higher education is a cause for celebration

By William T. Gormley, Jr.
William T. Gormley, Jr. is a professor of government and political science at Georgetown University.

IN RECENT YEARS, we have witnessed an explosion of organizational report cards measuring the per-formance of public schools, hospitals, HMOs, airlines and other organizations that deliver public serv-ices to consumers. Report cards that assess the performance of state and local governments also have begun to appear. Most of these focus on an area of special interest to the raters, such as economic devel-opment or the wellbeing of children.

The release of a new state-by-state report card for higher education by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education is a cause for celebration. With excellent graphics and thorough documentation, Measuring Up 2000 highlights the strengths and weaknesses of individual states.

A common weakness, highlighted by the report, is the absence of good data on how successful colleges and universities are in educating their students. More striking than this commonality, howev-er, is the extraordinary variety of state responses to the challenges of higher education. For example, California, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina and Utah have taken significant steps to make higher education affordable to their residents, while Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island have lagged far behind. Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont can boast of high completion rates for their col-lege and university students, while Alaska and Nevada have struggled in this area.

The best organizational report cards meet six criteria: validity, comprehensiveness, comprehensi-bility, relevance, reasonableness and functionality. Measuring Up 2000 is highly relevant, as it addresses issues of undeniable importance, such as the capacity of all citizens to share in the econom-ic benefits that flow from higher education. It is eminently reasonable in terms of cost, because it relies entirely on data that already have been gathered and published by others, such as the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Education. It is also highly comprehensible, thanks to letter grades that enable both experts and “laypersons” to make instant comparisons between their state and the rest of the nation. And it is rather comprehensive, with separate scores for preparation, participation, affordability, completion and benefits. The inclusion of data on graduate education in 2002, already being contemplated, would make for an even more comprehensive report.

The validity of the report card is somewhat difficult to judge. The absence of controls for the demographic characteristics of the state popula-tion makes it difficult to assess whether states are being generous or stingy, whether they are accomplishing miracles or achieving less than they should in their college completion rates, etc. In higher education, as in other policy sectors, what you accomplish depends in part on the cards you are dealt.

The functionality of the report card is also difficult to judge. While many of the report card’s indicators encourage states to invest more in higher education and to think more creatively about how to deliver higher education services, states are also rewarded for exporting students to other states. For example, New Jersey, which sends 20,000 more students to other states than it receives in return, gets very respectable grades in part because it allows other states and private institutions to subsidize students raised in New Jersey.

These limitations, however, are flaws that should not detract from the basic point: Measuring Up 2000 is a well-designed, well-crafted report card with a treasure trove of information for policymakers, researchers and citizens.

By highlighting the extraordinary variety of state responses to higher education and by underscor-ing the economic benefits that flow from higher education, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has provided valuable ammunition to policymakers and activists. Let’s hope that the ammunition will be used.

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