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The ‘College Portrait’ Encourages Transparency Among US Colleges

October 02, 2008 07:00 AM
by Jen O'Neill
Colleges and universities are participating in a project that could place them at the vanguard of the higher education accountability movement.

A Different Approach to the College Search

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On Sept. 29, the College Portrait accountability tool was launched. The tool offers high school students, parents, guidance counselors and stakeholders an easy way to compare profiles of higher education institutions.

Nearly 300 American colleges and universities are included in College Portrait, a component of the new Voluntary System of Accountability, a program created to provide greater accountability through accessible information. Over the next few months, participating colleges and universities will post their College Portraits directly on their campus Web sites. The Portraits will be comprised of a five-page profile divided into three sections: consumer information, student experience and student learning outcomes.

The tool is noncompetitive and noncommercial, and according to project head, Peter McPherson, “College Portrait is designed to be a trustworthy source of reliable data for prospective students, families, policymakers and the general public.”

Commercial Versus Noncommercial Education

As a response to the Department of Education’s call for more transparency, College Portrait was created to help students access reliable information about schools. In 2007, the Ventura County Star featured an article highlighting the college selection process and how students determine the best match. In the article, college counselor Sara Jacobsen advised that students should “look at what is best for them and what is best for their family.” According to a pool of high school counselors, “students and their families should move beyond reputation and think about what’s the best match.”

Other nonprofit organizations, such as The Education Conservancy, help students cut through the jargon so they can compare colleges and really see what each institution is all about, overriding the commercial aspects of higher education marketing tactics.

According to a 2007 NPR feature, many of today’s students go beyond ranking systems, such as the highly acclaimed U.S. News and World Report, which more often than not focuses on only a few facets of an educational institution. With a voluntary accountability system, students have the opportunity to seek out schools that fit their educational needs and preferences, and find schools better suited for them.

Out With the Old, In With the New Accountability

“Accountability” and “transparency” are buzzwords that have accompanied the Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind restructuring process since 2001. Other voluntary accountability systems, such as the University and College Accountability Network (U-CAN) and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) also represent a new approach to determining the quality of higher education institutions and their best practices.

Some university systems argue that although they are for accountability and transparency, they do not plan to participate in any type of outside accountability assessment. The University of California school system, which has recently been criticized for opposing accountability and transparency systems, declined to participate in the Voluntary System of Accountability.

President of the University of California system Mark Yudof, rejected the network’s obligation that participating schools use one of three national tests to measure student learning. According to Yudof, the requirement, “usurps the role of campus and departmental faculty in assessing student learning.”

While many colleges and universities around the country have steadfastly implemented a voluntary system for accountability, the big question remains: is this a trend, or is it here to stay as a catalyst for change in education policy?

Reference: Institute for Community College Development

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