Why Comparison Matters

If every college uses its own standards, how will students know which one offers them the most?

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Can higher education in the U.S. have real accountability without comparability? Should each college be in charge of determining its own standards for student success? Is the tuition- and tax-paying public best served by having thousands of student learning and accountability systems, virtually one per college? The answer to all of these questions for prospective college students, their parents, and the public is a resounding no. Accountability needs to be comparable for it to succeed. The public needs to be able to use the information to gauge one college against another. If schools are internally measuring whether they are doing a good job for their students, then the public also should be able to use that data as part of the college search process. Applicants need to be able to readily compare which schools are doing the best job in terms of student outcomes. Without such comparability between universities, there will not be real accountability.

Yet, higher education appears to be going in the opposite direction, backing principles of accountability that will turn the entire process into one that creates one assessment tool for each college and doesn't even include the requirement for comparability, according to the article "Calling Out Colleges on Student Learning" in insidehighered.com. The lack of a mandate for comparability was made clear at the 2008 annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) when leaders of CHEA and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) and other heads of higher education associations representing more than 3,000 colleges and universities put out a statement of principles of student learning outcomes.

It can be hoped that over time leaders in higher education will come to believe that being open and comparable is in the best interests of those that they say it's their mission to serve: students.