Point of View

A much-needed window into college learning

January 3, 2013 

Back in 2007, American universities faced a threat: The Department of Education wanted proof that students were learning something!

Universities have generally shied away from providing such learning “outcome” information, preferring to be judged according to “input” information such as the average SAT scores of incoming freshmen.

Then Education Secretary Margaret Spellings created her Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education, and it looked as though the federal government would mandate evidence of colleges’ educational worthiness.

Some enterprising universities quickly created a Voluntary System of Accountability. The UNC General Administration helped system schools meet the accountability standards by covering the costs for the VSA pilot program.

Now, participation in the VSA may be starting to bear positive fruit for the UNC system.

Participating VSA schools measure learning outcomes using one of three widely accepted methods. They are required to provide clear, accessible and comparable information on the undergraduate student experience and post it on the VSA’s website.

Participating institutions are not required to report learning outcomes until four years after the initial sign up – for UNC, that was 2012. Schools must also update results every three years.

Of the three assessment methods, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) is generally viewed as the most effective. This is the one that Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa used in their book “Academically Adrift,” which shocked readers by revealing that, nationally, today’s college students show little to no academic progress by their sophomore year.

CLA scores are aggregated to inform each institution how well its students as a whole are performing. Freshman scores are compared with graduating senior scores to obtain the institution’s contribution to students’ results.


Eleven of the 16 UNC schools chose to test their students with the CLA. Of them, seven have reported CLA results. From the data that have been gathered so far, it’s clear that UNC universities differ significantly in terms of student learning outcomes; incoming freshmen start out with different levels of education, and universities add to those skills at different rates.

For example, Appalachian State freshmen enter the university with relatively high scores, but learn only half as much as students at UNC Pembroke by the end of four years. Further data and analysis will help explain such differences.

UNC-Chapel Hill declined to post its CLA results because campus leaders and faculty believed the test results weren’t representative, despite the study’s use of statistically sound and publisher-recommended sample sizes – an omission that the UNC Board of Governors should address immediately.

Although the VSA pilot program is an excellent start to fulfilling the governors’ goal of improving academic quality, it would benefit greatly from two modifications.

First, all UNC schools should use the same test. The CLA is the best choice because it’s already widely used and because it assesses students’ abilities to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly and cogently.

Not only did the “Academically Adrift” authors use the CLA, but Bill Gates recently endorsed it. He wrote that “most people would agree that skills like critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing – the things the (CLA) test does measure – are pretty important.”

Moreover, Arum and Roksa found that postgraduate employment and social outcomes mirror the CLA’s results. For example, students in the bottom quintile of CLA performance as seniors are more than three times as likely to be unemployed two years after college than graduates whose CLA scores were in the top quintile; they were also twice as likely to be living back at home with their parents, Arum said.

The second improvement is to publish the results in a place with easy public access. Universities shouldn’t be able to selectively withhold results when they don’t like them, as UNC-Chapel Hill did. Results also should be broken down by departments.

Parents, students, legislators, employers and taxpayers should know how much students are actually learning and which departments are delivering real value to the students and citizens of North Carolina. The CLA makes clear which programs and universities are improving students’ skills and which are not.

That level of detail would improve students’ college choices, let employers know the best departments from which to recruit, and inform North Carolina’s taxpayers and parents about how well their money is spent.

Moving forward, the greater transparency created by using the VSA will allow stakeholders to ask important questions and receive clear answers. And it’s about time.

Jenna Ashley Robinson is director of outreach at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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