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Published Feb. 27, 2006

College administrators are not telling the public and policymakers what they need to know about the education that the colleges provide. The results of a recent survey revealed information that parents and taxpayers might find shocking.

A majority of surveyed seniors from 80 randomly selected colleges and universities were unable to perform some common tasks that any college graduate surely ought to know. They couldn't calculate the cost per ounce of a food item. They couldn't compare the viewpoints of two editorials. Only 20 percent could compare ticket prices or calculate the cost of a salad and sandwich from a menu.

This troubling information is from the December 2005 release of the National Survey of America's College Students (NSACS), covering those 80 private and public four-year colleges and universities, conducted by the American Institutes for Research. The study states: "With the recent attention on accountability measures for elementary and secondary schools, accountability in institutions of higher education has been all but overlooked."

Clearly, the results show that students in this country are simply not being given the basic tools they need. And it suggests strongly that institutions of higher learning need to track student performance in order to demonstrate that they are educating the next generation. Otherwise, they risk a potentially catastrophic backlash from the people who are footing the bill for a university education.

"This sends a message that we should be monitoring this as a nation, and we don't do it," says Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. "States have no idea about the knowledge and skills of their college graduates."

Aside from the grade a professor gives at the end of each semester or a diploma signed by a university president at the end of four years, are there other yardsticks for measuring what students have learned? How should we monitor the performance of our colleges and universities?

"We'd better take a hard look at what higher education is and is not doing so we can be globally competitive," writes former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, chairman of the National Commission on Accountability in Higher Education, in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Accountability is necessary to maintain quality."

The good news is that America may be awakening to the need for such accountability. The federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education is considering the possibility of standardized testing to ensure that colleges are providing the level of education expected of them.

Closer to home, the Florida Board of Governors has adopted a different approach.

While I chaired the board's Accountability Committee, we recommended that state universities adopt Academic Learning Compacts for every one of their baccalaureate degree programs. This plan would require universities to establish simple, clear expectations for every student and determine whether each student meets standards with respect to content-area knowledge, critical thinking and communication skills before graduation. This would provide more transparency and help to make sure all graduates are competent in basic skills.

With the Academic Learning Compacts established, faculty members in each department will be better able to articulate their programs' goals and will be held accountable if their students, after four years' study, fail to meet the fair and honest criteria for success spelled out in the compacts they helped devise. What constitutes fair and honest assessment criteria?

Student performance can be judged in a variety of ways. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy under the Academic Learning Compacts. Effective assessment measures could include essays, portfolios, internship assessments, licensure exams, employer surveys, graduate school admission exams, senior projects, or other methods. Each university, and each department, will determine what measures best reflect their fields of study. The assessment measures for students in various programs must be distinct.

Academic Learning Compacts are not a panacea, nor are they necessarily the best idea for all colleges. They will, however, give students, employers and the public a reliable measure that they can trust - a fair benchmark of the progress of undergraduates during four of the most important years of their lives. We can decrease the numbers of students lacking basic skills by establishing standards and goals for higher-education success, and we must.

If the United States is to continue to lead the world in quality of higher education, we are going to have to do much better.

Steve Uhlfelder is a former member of the Florida Board of Governors, former chair of the Board of Regents, and chair of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.