A Useful Tool
Higher education is well-served
by national report card
By Philip J. Rock is chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
THE NATIONAL CENTER for Public Policy and Higher Education has performed a valuable service
in devising the first-ever report card evaluating higher education on a state-by-state basis.
The national report card will prove to be a useful tool for accountability, for policymaking and for
advocacy. The virtues of the report card are many, but three stand out:
The report card has been thoughtfully prepared and skillfully crafted, but like the first version of
anything, it is not without flaws. Perhaps the most glaring of those deficiencies is the absence of critical
data from many states—Illinois included—on some of the key indicators of performance. The National
Center and states should work together to ensure that gaps in data will be plugged by the time the next
report card on higher education, due in 2002, is prepared.
- It measures performance based on variables that are relevant to the public’s perception of the
purposes of higher education—the affordability of a college degree, participation in postsec-ondary
education, college completion rates and such.
- It gives states realistic benchmarks to shoot for—the top grades go to the top-performing states
in each category, and other states are judged against the top performers, thereby creating
- It is presented in a format familiar to the public, public officials and press, thus ensuring it will
gain widespread attention and be readily understood.
In addition, although it is generally true that the National Center chose valid performance measures,
at least in some categories the variables used for making judgments were not uniformly informative. For
example, the weakest of the five graded categories was the benefits of higher education, particularly in
calculating the economic and civic advantages resulting from higher education. Recently, an in-depth
study commissioned by the Illinois Board of Higher Education and conducted by the University of
Illinois concluded that the economic and non-economic benefits of higher education were substantial
Even with its flaws, however, the report card is a mechanism to build accountability with the public
and thereby to strengthen advocacy for higher education with political leaders, the business community
and other constituencies.
It also will guide policymakers in all states to bolster strengths and shore up weaknesses exposed in
the report card, which is the purpose the National Center set out to achieve.
For example, in Illinois, as we rejoice over the top-in-the-nation grade received on the report card,
we are diligently exploring what we need to do to maintain the A’s in preparation, participation and
affordability, and to raise the grades in degree completion and benefits.
Another order of business will be to fill the information gaps that cloud the view of student prepara-tion
in Illinois. The Board of Higher Education will work with the State Board of Education to ensure that
data concerning course-taking patterns of middle and high school students and student achievement
measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress are available. The report card also will
assist us in refining our own standards of performance and benchmarks of progress.
Finally, the report card will help us engage in constructive conversations within higher education
and with the K–12 community about core values and policies relating to adequate preparation for col-lege,
especially in the number of students taking the core college prep curriculum; access to college,
particularly for minorities whose representation in higher education continues to lag; and means to raise
the number of students who leave college with a degree.
In short, the National Center has given states the impetus and much of the data to improve higher
education across the country. When the national valedictorian gets just a B+, there remains much room