Letter to the New York Times

March 20, 2007

Letters to the Editor
New York Times

Re: Editorial, "Proof of Learning at College," February 26

To the Editor:

The suggestion by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education that a single, one-size-fits-all test be used at the nation’s more than 6,000 colleges, universities, and proprietary institutions appalls many in higher education ("Proof of Learning at College," editorial, Feb. 26).  The diversity of institutions—two- and four-year, for-profit and nonprofit, large research universities and small liberal arts colleges, culinary schools and performing arts institutions—and the differences between their missions and student populations make a single meaningful measure of learning outcomes difficult to imagine.  A nationwide high-stakes test would have a devastating impact on educational diversity and opportunity for low-income students, particularly if results determined whether institutions, and thus their students, were eligible for the Pell Grant and other federal student aid programs.  

America’s college graduates drove the technological and economic boom of the 1990s, and continue to keep our nation the world’s scientific, business, and military leader.  Nevertheless, college and university presidents overwhelmingly believe that student learning must be better measured.  In fact, they are leading the charge for meaningful, mission-driven ways to assess it.  Since the late 1990s, measurements such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment and the National Survey of Student Engagement have grown in popularity.  Each assessment tool is now being used by up to hundreds of institutions.  Institutions are also more accountable than ever for learning outcomes through the accrediting agencies. The 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act mandated that accrediting agencies make assessment of student achievement a cornerstone of their evaluation of an institution’s educational quality.  Higher education has taken this change seriously and developed many forms of purposeful assessment that do not erode its very foundation. 

There is a great irony in the commission’s discussion about improving institutional quality: the administration that formed the commission proposes in its latest budget to flat-fund the maximum Pell Grant for the fifth consecutive year, and to slash funding across the student aid programs.  Federal aid is losing ground to inflation, and the number of needy students is at a historic high.  As institutions reallocate strained resources to fill the gap left by the federal government’s retrenchment, it is educational quality that is most at risk.  A call for better educational outcomes is meaningless when crucial resources are being sucked away.  Now is the time for the federal government to increase affordability, access, and quality of learning by investing in higher education, not by divesting.   


David L. Warren
National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities


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