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No Grades for States This Year

December 1, 2010

This is normally the season when governors and state legislators brace for the biennial grades for their states' higher education systems, courtesy of the "Measuring Up" report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Delivered every other year since 2000, the "National Report Card on Higher Education," as it is subtitled, has graded states on their progress in six key areas of postsecondary performance -- often critically, as in 2008 when it gave 49 states "Fs" on affordability and all states an "incomplete" on student learning because "there are not sufficient data to allow meaningful state-by-state comparisons."

Many public policy leaders credit Measuring Up with capturing the attention of state and federal leaders about the underperformance of American higher education in a way that had not been done before. And as aggravating as those low grades can be to state leaders (and as much as some analysts criticize the report for its "Parker Brothers board games" simplicity), they have come to expect it and, at least to an extent, appreciate it.

There will be no Measuring Up 2010, though, and the future of the annual report card is, to date, uncertain. The director of the national center and the report's creator, Patrick M. Callan, said at a session assessing the report card's influence at this month's Association for the Study of Higher Education meeting that the center had always planned to publish at most a decade's worth of the studies, to serve as a "proof of concept" of the report card's value. Callan said that he and the center's board believe that the report continues to have value, and that they are "in active discussions" with other organizations (and with potential funders for them) about taking over the project.

But "we've done our last" one, he said at the session.

In an interview, Callan amplified those comments. "We never saw our role as creating a policy center for the ages," but rather sought to "review the public policy infrastructure" in higher education and to "test ideas," of which the report card was one. He said that while the report card has its critics -- Clifford Adelman, of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, in 2008 called it "an annual ritual, complete with its own liturgy of gray noddings and self-flagellation" -- it "has been evaluated up one side and down," because it has been funded by most of the leading philanthropic supporters of higher education.

There was some debate during the session (in which this reporter participated) about whether the expansion in the number of think tanks and research groups focusing on (or at least paying attention to) higher education since Measuring Up first appeared has made the report card less relevant and necessary. (Higher education has become an increasing focus at organizations like the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for American Progress, and a central topic for groups such as Education Sector and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.)

But there was also widespread agreement, from officials representing the American Council on Education and the National Conference of State Legislators, that the report's simplicity (easily understood letter grades for each state and the nation in six categories) and its constancy over time (what Callan called its "relentless focus on a specific set of outcomes") had both brought it significant attention and given it a certain level of sway.

And state leaders have generally come around to finding it useful, even if they're sometimes put off by the low grades it awards. "When we talk to [state higher education officials], state budget officers, and legislators, they say, 'Whatever you do, don't stop it,' " Callan said in the interview. (This 2008 column by Kevin Carey, research and policy manager at Education Sector, sums up how favorably higher education policy types -- even former state officials who once were skeptical about it -- have come to view Measuring Up.)

But the center itself "isn't going to be here forever," Callan said, so now is the time to find a new home for the report card. That is no small task: Measuring Up actually includes 51 individual reports (one for the nation and one for each state), and Callan acknowledged that the report could use some freshening up from whichever organization takes it on next, including possibly altering it so that instead of judging states' performance based on how they fare compared to one another, they might be compared to an international standard, or to how successfully they are meeting their share of the college completion goal set by President Obama.

Exactly when and in what form a new Measuring Up will emerge, though, Callan could not say.

 

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