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Right issue, wrong fix

ACICS responds to Chronicle of Higher Education article on student unit record data

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Dear Editor:   

“What Experts on College-Ratings System Mean by ‘We Need Better Data’” (February 14, 2014) finds experts diagnosing the right debilitation but offering the wrong remedy.  In the distant past, popular notions of higher education were largely limited to affluent students attending four-year colleges.  In this narrow view, students transferred, graduated in a prescribed timeframe or dropped-out.  On-time graduation rates became the proxy measure for institutional quality and academic success.  Those days—if they ever existed—are not these days.  Today, college students are far more likely to be non-traditional students, following a non-linear path to the pursuit of a postsecondary education and career success.   

Do we need better data to make better college choices?  Absolutely.  (Evidence-Based Institutional Effectiveness).  We also need to shake the blinders off higher education and use the widest possible panoply of student unit record data to see the world as it is—not how some remember it to be.  Rather than the continuation of a few limited indicators, we need our higher education policy debates, pedagogical innovations, college application choices and, yes, rating systems, informed by a continuum of information:  student demographics, income level, academic preparation, enrollment status, previous academic activity, academic success, subsequent employment and more. 

Citing privacy and security concerns, Congress bars the door to greater SUR utilization.  Yet if we are to reach the nation’s equality of access ideal, we need to move away from the binary and often draconian choices imposed by a limited collection of proxy measures like 90/10, cohort default rates, and on-time graduation rates.  We need to understand that today’s college goers are far more likely to be financially independent, to be raising families, to seek higher education after a less than satisfactory high school experience, to be older adults, to be returning to college after years spent in the workforce, to be an active duty service member or veteran.  And if college ratings systems are the wave of the future, we need dozens of metrics to help all stakeholders better understand the potential consequences of their choices.   

Constriction of postsecondary insight is the debilitation; far greater SUR transparency is an important and potent remedy. 

Al Gray  
President and CEO 
ACICS