Contributing to the Chronicle’s series of special reports on the higher education quality problem, Alexander McCormick says, “There’s lots of blame to go around, but I’ll single out faculty norms and the news media.” I’m with him on the first part. But the media part, not so much. He says:
The news media usually focus on the wrong things. If the big story every year is which Ivy tops the rankings, or which campus is the biggest party school, we won’t ever focus on the real problems. And when the media do look at quality, they too often settle for simple answers to complex questions—flawed approaches that either reinforce the conventional wisdom (reputation and average SAT scores, for example) or ignore content and process (graduation rates).
The media rarely ask tough questions about teaching and learning: What are we asking of our students? How do we know if we’re getting it? What are we doing to improve?
Alex McCormick (with whom, full disclosure, I’ve had a number of friendly conversations on this topic in recent years) is, as his post notes, the director of the National Survey of Student Engagement at Indiana University. NSSE is designed to ask questions, some of them tough, about teaching and learning. Hundreds of colleges and universities participate every year. But NSSE won’t release institutional results unless the institutions themselves agree.
To be sure, about 450 colleges have made aggregate NSSE data (not individual questions) available to USA Today, which you can see here. Others are reporting limited NSSE results to the College Portraits site. (See here for how those reports can be improved.) But, speaking as someone who belongs to the somewhat disreputable club of media-based college rankers (we have a secret handshake and everything; Bob Morse is the Grand Vizier), it’s hard to write fairly about measures of higher education quality when most colleges refuse to engage with and/or publish the measures. SAT scores and graduation rates, by contrast, are publicly available for every institution. It’s no coincidence that the media writes about them.
Colleges can take responsibility for creating public measures of quality and let outside organizations independently examine and interpret the information. Or they can not do that, and stand by while outside organizations create their own measures. Those are the only available choices.