Federal urge to meddle reaches college campus

By LIAM JULIAN Special to the Times
Published April 7, 2007

It's spring, and most high school seniors around Florida already have reached in their mailboxes and learned where they will spend their undergraduate careers.

For many students, though, the envelopes aren't simply verdicts on their applications' merits. Rather, they are the results of countless hours of effort aimed at getting into the best college possible.

But how to determine which colleges are good and which are not? Most families tend to rely on reputation, and on the ubiquitous (but thoroughly flawed) U.S. News & World Report college guide.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings wants to change that process.

Acting on recommendations from a 2006 Commission on the Future of Higher Education report that she commissioned, Spellings hopes to make available to the public actual educational data supplied by students at individual colleges (information that universities, if they collect it, won't give up).

It's not as if Spellings is addressing a higher education problem that doesn't exist. A mere 63 percent of college freshmen will graduate within six years; less than half of black and Hispanic freshmen will. Plenty of evidence shows that even those who graduate from the "best" schools often are unprepared for the intellectual rigors of employment.

What's the solution? According to Spellings, it's more transparency and accountability. And more federal accountability - as we know from the No Child Left Behind Act for K-12 students - means more testing.

The impulse to test college students as freshmen and then again as seniors, to compile those results by school, and to make the information available for all to peruse sounds like a good idea. Parents should be able to learn how much students at, say, the University of South Florida are actually learning while enrolled there, and if the university is making sure its students graduate.

But if we've learned anything from NCLB, it's that such benign impulses can have malignant consequences. Especially in higher education, such federal meddling is ill-advised.

Why? For one, NCLB has resulted in a narrowing of K-12 curricula. Because NCLB only tested math and reading, many schools effectively taught their students only those subjects, omitting history, civics, sciences, the arts. What gets tested gets taught.

And while NCLB can marshal at least one serious defense to that accusation (if students can't read or do math, learning about Socrates won't do them a damn bit of good down the road), a college testing requirement could not. Because universities will be judged on their current students' test scores, they'll have little choice but to do some narrowing of their own - requiring exam prep classes, for example.

Add to this the simple fact that college isn't anything like monolithic K-12. At a major university, students can choose from hundreds of possible majors.

What, exactly, would a university accountability test test? Should a school be judged harshly because its aspiring engineers are poor essayists, or because its English majors can't do advanced math?

The upshot is predictable: More federal bureaucracy, more regulations and a whole lot of time wasted on campuses.

A far better idea is for the federal government to stay out of the higher education arena and concentrate on where the most egregious college-level problems begin: K-12. Universities should do a better job of creating well-rounded students, sure, but that shortcoming pales in comparison to the legions of college freshmen who arrive at campus unable to write a coherent sentence.

Liam Julian is a St. Petersburg native and an adjunct scholar at the James Madison Institute.