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Real College Learning

Asking college students about the quality of their actual learning experience might seem an obvious way to improve the nation's institutions of higher education.

Alas, this simple idea of holding colleges accountable for their pricey consumer service has only caught on slowly. Instead, an old caste system of schools lives on, one that ranks them by reputation and statistical surveys rather than on the students' level of engagement.

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That lack of information about the learning experience isn't helpful to high school students picking a college, to employers hiring a college grad, or to state lawmakers funding state universities.

A yearly ranking of colleges by US News & World Report has stirred up thinking among campus faculty, but that survey looks mainly at statistics, such as test scores. This week, however, a survey of 63,000 students at 276 colleges and universities was released that reveals more-accurate benchmarks on education quality (see story on page 11).

The National Survey of Student Engagement wasn't designed to rank colleges, but its findings nonetheless have suddenly put such small colleges as Elon, Centre, and Sweet Briar on a list of near-idyllic places to study.

The survey asked students such questions as how much time they spent discussing and analyzing course material, how much they studied in small groups, how many books they read on their own, whether they had given a class presentation, and the amount of time spent with a teacher.

The answers will help the 276 schools improve their learning environments, which may be the biggest impact of this survey. Few students, for instance, spend the recommended time on home- work. That's a signal that assignments must be more engaging. (More schools will be surveyed in the future.)

Other types of surveys are in the works, a sign that the movement for educational accountability is expanding beyond K-12 public schools.

The main purpose of such surveys, of course, is to make sure a college is good at what it thinks it is good at. Then its students will know what to expect - and receive it.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society