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Congress flunks in higher education act

Colleges that take taxpayer money must be held accountable for how much students actually learn.

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It's fair to say that the latest college rankings from U.S. News and World Report, due out Aug. 22, will be more widely read than the Higher Education Act signed last week by President Bush. There's a good reason for that, and it's not because the act is 1,158 pages long and a foot high.

College-bound students often use the magazine's annual rankings to find the best schools to apply to. As imperfect as these comparisons are, the rankings have shaken up higher education.

Unfortunately, the rankings mainly measure prestige and inputs – such as SAT scores – and fail to satisfy a demand to know which schools deliver on the quality of education achieved by graduates. As Congress sought to renew the Higher Education Act – first passed in 1965 – the Bush administration and some in Congress wanted government to hold colleges accountable for such "learning outcomes."

Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on these institutions or are given in student loans, and yet taxpayers know next to nothing about their return on this investment.

The university lobby, however, rose up against the idea of providing an objective measure for consumers on educational quality. Professors joined in this effort, claiming government cannot withhold money from schools by using the same measuring stick for all schools. That would infringe on academic freedom, they insist.

They're right in that scholarship must be free of federal interference. But given the billions in federal aid, professors should be measured on the results of their core mission, education.

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