I recently returned from the 2007 Southern Association for Institutional Research Conference in Little Rock, Ark.
I go to these conferences in the States and around the world to give talks on the U.S. News rankings, find out the latest trends at universities, determine what new higher education data U.S. News should try to collect, and get feedback. This was a meeting of institutional researchers, individuals at colleges and universities who collect and analyze college data for campus decision making and planning. Many of them also fill out the U.S. News surveys. I gave two presentations: “America’s Best Colleges Rankings: What Just Happened and What's Ahead” and “America's Best Graduate Schools Rankings: How They're Done and What's New.”
How to measure success and educational outcomes was the most discussed “hot topic” at this conference. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’s 2006 Commission on the Future of Higher Education emphasized the need for postsecondary institutions to do a better job of educating students. Accrediting agencies, national associations, and other groups are also discussing the importance of understanding and measuring student success. Still, after many sessions at this conference and others that I have attended, there was no agreement on whether or how colleges should make this information available to the public.
One effort that was discussed and seems to making progress is the “Voluntary System of Accountability” project, which is a partnership between the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. The VSA’s goal is to provide comparable information to the public on institutions in a standardized format. The VSA gets credit for being the only such effort underway that will include outcomes and assessment data. The problem is that this system is, by definition, voluntary, and only a small proportion of four-year colleges will most likely participate. Look for the first VSA templates to be made public on each participating college’s website in early 2008.