Reports by federal bureaucracies seldom catch my attention. But this one from U.S. Department of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education is worth a look. If you squint, you’ll see a public relations lesson hidden in its pages.
I learned of the report from an editorial that originated with the San Jose Mercury News. That editorial, like the report itself, calls on leaders of higher education to place key parts of their databases into one central website. That site would be accessible to all who seek information about the performance of U.S. colleges and universities.
In short, the Dept. of Ed wants colleges and universities to become transparent and to share data gathered as part of the College Learning Assessment and the National Survey of Student Engagement. That data, they say, would help students and their families make more informed choices. It might also force academic institutions to become more accountable for their performance.
I haven’t overlooked the irony of a Bush administration cabinet officer calling for more transparency. But you know what they say — even a blind pig finds and acorn once in a while. But according to the Mercury News, the commission’s report has a bit more to offer than the No Child Left Behind boondoggle:
Despite the fears of higher education leaders, this is not “No Undergrad Left Behind.” There are no proposals to require colleges to use a standard test, no federal schemes to rate or rank colleges. The higher education sector is far too diverse to be judged by any one measure.
But, as college costs soar and young people feel increasing pressure to earn a degree, families need to know more than the average SAT of admitted students or what percentage of applicants were turned away. Knowledge is power.
If the folks who run the academy were on their toes, they’d see the public relations opportunity presented by this report. They’d sit down with their accrediting bodies, reach out to the Dept. of Ed, and come up with a plan to make more information available — to all of us. And they’d start promoting this transparency before the Feds pass some crazy law that says they have to.
The leaders of higher ed are smart folks, but they’re accustomed to management by committee. That means they’re exceptionally good at killing good ideas. I don’t see any signs that universities get the “transparency” thing, but as public trust in higher ed continues to erode, that will have to change.
Skyrocketing costs for colleges, more than twice the inflation rate, are the primary reason the Feds are calling for more accountability. Low graduation rates are another. Christian Science Monitor had a good piece about this last week.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings uses the car-buying analogy to reinforce the commission’s point. Trite, but it works:
If you want to buy a new car, you go online and compare a full range of models, makes and pricing options. And when you’re done you’ll know everything from how well each car holds its value down to wheel size and number of cup-holders. The same transparency and ease should be the case when students and families shop for colleges, especially when one year of college can cost a lot more than a car.
Spellings plans a summit meeting next year to build consensus for the plan. If the leaders of higher ed are paying attention, they’ll show up at that meeting ready to lead the conversation. But don’t count on it.