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Consumer Reports for Colleges

In a recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Mark Bauerlein noticed that their “Working It Out” column tackled an issue that American students and their families view as highly important.

It was addressed in the form of a question:“Should each college be required to prominently post consumer information for prospective students – a kinds of nutrition label for higher ed?”

The idea was that colleges should actually post “externally audited” material that would submit the over-hyped and often false promotional material presented in glossy school brochures to the harsh sunlight of truth, suggested writer Marty Nemko. Of course, truth has its downsides.

Too many market-driven stats about employment prospects might inspire colleges to “narrow their offerings to market-driven majors,” to the detriment of liberal arts, according to MindingtheCampus.com.

Senior editor Derek Thompson reported that “the question sparked a huge response.” Some readers wanted more numbers, i.e. “the debt-after-graduation and earnings-by-degree.”  Others were adamant that the “college experience is unquantifiable and easily perverted by metrics.”

Despite the outpouring of opinion on both sides of this issue, Bauerlein said that one important factor escaped mention – that is, “how much students learn relative to their grades.” For example, how much do English majors at a state school know with a B+ average?

And what about chemistry majors who earn Bs for a couple of years?

Bauerlein offered a straightforward solution to this problem, namely creating two tests – one taken before the course of study and one afterward, to determine the amount of value added by a particular course or seminar.

That way, “if a student doesn’t do well on the tests or the grades, we can’t blame the university. If a student scores well in grades but poorly on tests, then grade inflation is at fault. If there is minimal improvement in a B student’s grades over a couple of years, the course curriculum isn’t rigorous enough, and so on.

Still, a major roadblock exists.  Who will make up the tests?
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Deborah Lambert writes the Squeaky Chalk column for Accuracy in Academia [1].

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org [2].