American higher education is slipping, against the systems of other countries and in terms of being affordable to citizens, according to a report being issued today by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
"Measuring Up 2006: The National Report Card on Higher Education" assigns the United States and individual states grades in various categories that reflect how well they do at preparing students for college, having affordable higher education systems, and various other criteria. There aren't a lot of candidates for the dean's list. While the report found progress in some areas over the time period that the center has been producing these report cards (this is the fourth biennial study), in other areas, especially related to costs, states appear to be backsliding.
Patrick M. Callan, president of the center, started a press briefing Wednesday on the report by noting the "even the harshest critics" of American higher education tend to preface their analyses by praising the system as the "best in the world." The report, which includes international comparisons for the first time, "suggests otherwise," Callan said.
What the data suggest, Callan said, is a system in which American higher education is resting on its laurels from the period of time before the rest of the world started to pay attention to higher education. This is clear when one compares adult populations as a whole to younger adults who more recently were in -- or had the potential to be in -- college. The United States is second in the world in percentage of adults aged 35 to 64 holding a college degree, but seventh among those 25 to 34. In addition, the data note that Americans are better at starting college than finishing it. The U.S. ranks 5th in the world in the percentage of young adults enrolled in college, but 16th in degrees per students enrolled.
The report card is best known for its grades for individual states -- and the grades were particular poor for affordability, with 43 states receiving an F and no states earning an A or a B. Grades are based on a series of factors designed to avoid single national standards, while attempting to hold lawmakers accountable. So for affordability, for example, the study considers among other factors the percentage of family income required to pay net costs of attending a four-year college. This approach is designed not to punish states that have high tuition but high aid or to penalize states with low income and low tuition. The study found numerous states where this percentage is going up, where aid is increasingly focused on merit, and where tuition is increasing faster than sources of aid.
Callan said that on affordability, there is plenty of blame to go around. The federal government has failed to keep Pell Grants' value rising with the cost of attending college. But he said that more Pell funds alone wouldn't solve the problems because with rising tuition rates, "all the new money gets absorbed." He called for a push by colleges to limit increases, while federal and state governments try to provide more need-based aid.
The report looks both at state totals and also at subgroups, with states earning better grades if they don't have large gaps in the performance of different racial and ethnic groups. Generally, the report found that such gaps are widespread and significant. In New Jersey, for example, the enrollment rate for white 18- to 24-year olds is 47 percent, compared to 27 percent for others. In Colorado, the rates are 40 percent for whites and 17 percent for others.
While Callan said that he was saddened by the lack of progress on affordability, there were other categories in which states demonstrated more progress. On various measures of college completion, 35 states have improved in more than half of the measures used. On measures that go into the preparation grade, 45 states have improved on more than half of the measures.
One of the newer features of the report card is an analysis of learning that takes place in college, where the center does not award letter grades but gives a + to some states and an incomplete grade to others. In 2000, the center awarded incomplete grades to every state, finding that none of them had good systems in place to measure what students actually learn in a way that could be compared from state to state. This year, nine states earned a + for participating in programs that allow for such comparisons, through analyses of the literacy and mathematical skills of graduates and the adult population, passage rates on licensure examinations, admissions to competitive graduate schools and various other measures.
The Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education,  which Callan has advised, has made a priority of pushing colleges to identify and to start using ways to measure learning. While there was much talk during the commission's deliberations of having some test, the panel did not recommend that any single measure, but called on colleges to have easily understood, consumer-oriented tools that would allow prospective students and their families, as well as the government, figure out what happens during the years of an undergraduate education. Supporters of this push talked about the need for standards and accountability, while critics -- especially amid discussion of possible national tests -- cautioned against trying to measure all colleges in the same way.
Callan said that he saw a great deal of "synergy" between the ideas he was pushing on measuring student learning and those advocated by the commission.
With the ground covered by the commission, Callan said, "the argument that this can't be done without destroying higher education or dumbing it down is pretty much dead in the water." Callan noted that the comparisons the center uses aren't one single test, but a variety of measures. Still, they are comparable across the country and that's key, he said. "At the end of the day, if you can't compare, you don't know very much," he said.
The following table features the state-by-state grades. Detailed reports will be available later today on the center's Web site.
State Grades in Measuring Up 2006