I recently returned from the 2008 Southern Association for Institutional Research Conference in Memphis. I go to these conferences in the United States and around the world to give talks on the Best Colleges rankings, find out the latest trends at universities, determine what new higher education data U.S. News should try to collect, and get feedback. I made one presentation: "America's Best Colleges Rankings: What Just Happened and What's Ahead."
The impact on colleges and students of the recently passed Higher Education Opportunity Act was discussed at length there. The HEOA includes provisions aimed at making more information available so that the public can better understand and respond to the rising cost of a college education. The act calls for the U.S. Department of Education to collect and publish on its website College Navigator a wide variety of information on college affordability, the net price of attending college by income level for those receiving student aid, which schools are raising tuitions more than others, and other consumer topics, including the time it takes to complete a degree at that college, alternative tuition plans, and information for disabled students.
There was also an update on the now two-year-old 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 students with comparable information on public institutions in a standardized format called College Portraits. The VSA deserves a lot of credit for being the only such effort underway that will include comparative data on student engagement as well as information on student learning outcomes. There is good news, too: As of October 18, nearly 60 percent (309 schools) of the 520 member institutions of the two higher education associations have agreed to participate in the project, and over 200 have already posted College Portraits. These colleges enroll some 3 million undergraduates, nearly 60 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment in four-year public colleges and universities. But there's a potential cloud on the horizon: Because the VSA system is, by definition, voluntary, it's unclear what proportion of four-year public colleges will end up participating and making all their information public.