The Competition to Be Transparent

Long criticized for providing too little information about their prices and performance, college groups are now pouring (often overlapping) information onto the Internet.
September 29, 2008

A mere two years ago, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education lambasted colleges for providing too little information to the public about how they perform. To produce "a robust culture of accountability and transparency throughout higher education," the panel wrote in its final report, "[w]e recommend the creation of a consumer-friendly information database on higher education with useful, reliable information on institutions, coupled with a search engine to enable students, parents, policymakers and others to weigh and rank comparative institutional performance."

How about three, or five, or more? Is this a case of the more the merrier, or will a proliferation of Web sites with (sometimes overlapping) data and other information about colleges overwhelm and confuse consumers?

The latest entrant in the information sweepstakes is being unveiled today by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. The groups' new Web site, College Portrait, brings together in one place the individual Web pages produced by the 302 public colleges and universities that have agreed thus far to participate in the organizations' Voluntary System of Accountability, which they designed, in part, to respond to the pressure from Spellings and others to bolster higher education accountability.

College Portrait joins the other major effort launched by a college group to date, the University and College Accountability Network begun by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the federal government's own College Navigator Web site. And it comes just a few days after the Education Conservancy unveiled an early version of its College Speaks site, which is designed as a more individualized, education-focused alternative to the college rankings popularized by U.S. News & World Report.

Taken together, it would be hard to argue now (if it was ever accurate) that consumers are devoid of accurate information about what colleges cost and how institutions perform on key measures. But it is increasingly reasonable to ask whether the many competing sources of statistics and other information will help students conduct better informed searches, or just barrage them with data. That's especially true because much of the data in the various systems comes from the same (federal) sources.

Those behind the College Portrait site laid out the case for the significance of the information they were providing in a telephone news conference Friday. The Voluntary System of Accountability, said Peter McPherson, president of the land-grant college association, has given hundreds of public colleges and universities a common mechanism for providing, in an "apples to apples" way, key information about how they are faring. And College Portrait, he said, brings all of that information together in one place, allowing an individual to search for an individual college or by state.

The College Portrait Web site does not give students or parents a mechanism for directly comparing institutions' performance against one another. David Shulenberger, vice president for academic affairs at NASULGC, said that focus groups conducted by the two associations found that families were interested in doing a "kitchen table analysis" in which they laid out the results for a group of potential colleges side by side to help make their decisions. "That's the model we're working from here," he said.

Given the widespread criticism of rankings systems within higher education, the associations "weren't doing this for purposes of comparison," said McPherson. "Somebody else may use [our data] for purposes of comparison," though, he acknowledged.

The primary thing that distinguishes College Portrait from the U-CAN network produced by the private college association and from the government's College Navigator site, McPherson said, is that the institutions that are participating in the voluntary accountability system have agreed to use and report their scores on one of three largely standardized measures of student learning: the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency, or the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress. "This is a fairly important additional component that no one else is doing," he said.

Measuring student learning outcomes has been the most controversial aspect of the Spellings' Education Department's push for higher education accountability, mostly because there is strong disagreement about the validity of gauging colleges' effectiveness by measuring the performance of a small number of students (as few as 100) on a single test.

That concern has been the primary barrier impeding scores of public colleges and universities from agreeing to participate in the NASULGC/AASCU accountability scheme. McPherson and Constantine (Deno) Curris, his counterpart at the state-college association, said they were highly pleased that a "critical mass" -- about 60 percent -- of the two groups' 520 members had decided to participate so far in the voluntary system, and that another 50 or so institutions were in the process of joining.

Some of the nation's most selective public colleges and universities, like the University of Virginia and the entire University of California system, have thus far declined to participate (though the California system's approach might be changing under its new president, Mark G. Yudof), and three states right now have no colleges participating in the Voluntary System of Accountability. "We're somewhat disappointed that Massachusetts, Hawaii and Oregon haven't stepped up to the plate yet," said Curris.

In an e-mailed response, Susan Weeks, vice chancellor for strategic programs and planning at the Oregon University System, said its institutions were focusing on their participation in the Association of American Colleges and Universities' Liberal Education and America's Promise program, which takes a "more comprehensive and direct approach to learning assessment that is, in my view, much more sophisticated than what is provided through VSA.

"In addition, OUS already provides a great deal of the VSA type information through our regular performance measurement program, which serves both the Board and the Legislature well. The combination of our comprehensive performance measures, other regularly reported information drawn from a database established nearly 30 years ago (rare for most states), and the approaches to learning assessment being explored ... on behalf of OUS provosts, has meant that the advantages of VSA for Oregon institutions are not as great as perhaps for other states."

John Hammang, who as AASCU's director of special projects and development has worked closely with individual colleges on implementing the accountability system, said that opposition from faculty members and a focus on "other priorities" were among the reasons why institutions were not participating. But "what you're seeing here is that, for the first time, American higher education institutions are pulling together in a national response in a way they've never had to before," he said.


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