Database to clock performance in accountability drive

September 29, 2006

The US Secretary of Education has demanded that US universities be held more accountable for their costs and the success or failure of their students while promising a "robust national dialogue", writes Jon Marcus.

Among other measures, a new public national database will be introduced to keep track of these outcomes.

Margaret Spellings admitted that her "long-overdue reforms" were unlikely to make her popular with universities, but she said: "Higher education must change from a system primarily based on reputation to one based on performance."

She said the database would help make information available to families about the actual cost of specific universities and their record in graduating students on time and with marketable skills.

In higher education, as with any other investment, Ms Spellings said, "meaningful data are critical to better manage the system". The database, she said, "will also hold schools accountable for quality".

Major higher education organisations tried to pre-empt Ms Spellings's proposals with a letter that largely deflected responsibility for problems of cost and access. It calls for more federal financial aid for low-income students, for example, and better preparation of students by primary and secondary schools.

Although she also called for an increase in need-based university financial aid and a streamlining of the paperwork involved, Ms Spellings said it was time for the federal Government to stop just giving more and more money to universities without knowing what students were getting in return.

The higher education groups did signal a willingness to consider providing information for prospective students about the actual costs of attendance, average times to degree, graduation rates and the post-graduation outcomes of students, maintaining that this would prove the cost of universities was lower than the public thought.

But they also objected to any government interference with accreditors, and complained that the government calculation of graduation rates were unfair because they exclude part-time students and others who may not finish a degree in the traditional four-year time frame.

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