Here are some things we know about higher education in America: how much it costs, which majors are popular, the number of Ph.D.s on the faculty. Here's something we don't know: whether students are learning.
The fact is, when it comes to higher education, we have a measure for almost everything but what matters most: actual learning outcomes at our nation's colleges and universities. That's why the work of a new federal commission, and the proposals in a new ETS report, are at the forefront of creative thinking in the area of measurement of postsecondary accountability.
The issue is critical. Whether the United States remains competitive will depend in large part on the ability of our postsecondary institutions to prepare learned, high-performing graduates equipped for the global workplace.
Based on that standard, there's cause for concern. For instance, we know that despite a high rate of postsecondary participation, Americans lag behind many other high-income countries in adult literacy.
We also know we're graduating fewer engineers and computer scientists than some of our economic competitors, and that almost twice as many bachelor's degrees in physics were awarded in 1956 - the last class before Sputnik - than in 2004.
But we need more than anecdotal evidence. We need data on whether colleges and universities are meeting the nation's competitive needs. That's where the Commission on the Future of Higher Education comes in.
Created by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, the commission is charged with developing a comprehensive national strategy for postsecondary education. Measuring the performance of colleges and universities in providing meaningful student learning must be a core part of the strategy.
A new ETS research paper, "A Culture of Evidence: Postsecondary Assessment and Learning Outcomes," outlines such an accountability system. It focuses on four dimensions of student learning:
domain-specific knowledge and skills
"soft skills," such as teamwork, communication and creativity
student engagement with learning
America's colleges and universities are the world standard in higher education. Our challenge is to build on their strengths while focusing more on educational outcomes and the value to students of a higher education - that is, on creating a culture of evidence of learning.
At ETS, we're working on our part. We're listening to educators, parents and policymakers. We're learning from sound research. And we're leading the effort to achieve both informed public policy and informed educational practice.
For more information about higher education, visit www.ets.org/higherlearning.html