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  Meaningful, Measurable Goals

National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview
 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 achievable standards.
  3. 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.
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.

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 in Illinois.

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 for improvement.

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