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Push to Hold Colleges Accountable Fraught With Problems, Say College Presidents


A public database for college accountability and learning outcomes of students, as proposed by the blue-ribbon Commission on the Future of Higher Education, would not factor in the diverse missions and characteristics of individual schools, said a panel of college presidents at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU).


While the Commission said that colleges will have a more vested interest in the success of their students if this information were made public to prospective students and their parents, a one-size-fits-all plan for accountability would not take into account the mission of specific colleges and universities.

In a session on learning outcomes and accountability, five college presidents agreed assessment was an important element in every institution as long as it was compatible with the individual institution’s mission.

Dr. David Shi, president of Furham University in Greenville, S.C., said Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has used “too sweeping a brush” to define the parameters of student learning. Describing the assessment tools at his school, where both internal and external surveys, such as the National Survey of Student Engagement, are used to help improve the campus, Shi said NAICU is representative of widespread efforts of all private colleges to assess students.

“All of us can do a better job of sharing the results of the assessment with our constituents and the general public,” said Shi.

Dr. Christopher Nelson, the president of the liberal arts St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., said his institution does not separate learning from assessment.

“In fact, it is a fully integrated aspect that may be threatened by any outside standard of assessment,” Nelson said.

Another liberal arts school president, Mary Meehan of Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wis., said the mission and student body makeup of her college has evolved over the years.  At Alverno, Meehan said, students are involved in their own assessment throughout the school year.

“The Spellings report misunderstands learning and assessment,” Meehan said. “It is a lifelong, ongoing and continuous process.”

Dr. David Caputo, the president of Pace University at New York City and Westchester County, reiterated that the Spellings report did not comprehend the diversity of American higher education. According to Caputo, assessment is a difficult process, with faculty seeing it as an intrusion to their work. It involves time and money, he said.

“The road ahead will be bumpy,” Caputo said. “States and federal government should not impose a plan… the best response would be for each institution to have a firm commitment to a well-defined assessment plan.”

By Shilpa Banerji


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