"We shouldn't be driven by fear, but we should be afraid," said Douglas C. Bennett, the president of Earlham College, during a panel on student learning at the American Council on Education's annual meeting here on Monday afternoon. Academic leaders should be afraid, Mr. Bennett said, because legislators and the public are losing confidence in the promise that colleges can collectively guarantee their own quality without external regulation.
"Quality assurance is a shared professional responsibility," Mr. Bennett said. "Except to the outside, to legislators and the public, it sometimes doesn't look like we're paying much attention. They think somebody else should be the watchdog. And we wouldn't like whatever would replace shared professional responsibility."
For that reason, Mr. Bennett said, colleges should be much more open about their assessments of their students' learning. "It is absolutely untenable for us to tell the public, 'We're assessing student learning, but we can't tell you exactly what we found,'" he said.
The panel's announced topic was the assessment of student learning, but it often sounded more like a discussion of accreditation. At several points, Mr. Bennett and his fellow speakers gestured anxiously toward the room next door, where a panel titled "A Federal Perspective on Accreditation: Can This Marriage Be Saved?" was taking place.
"I think we can all agree that saving accreditation is not the goal," said Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation for Education. "Transforming accreditation should be the goal."
Mr. Merisotis and Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges, both expressed interest in the idea of a graded system of accreditation, in which colleges could receive, say, a "gold level" accreditation for having the highest quality of instruction, a "silver level" for a lower quality, and so on.
All five speakers on the panel rejected the idea of relying on nationally normed multiple-choice assessments. "What we need are authentic indicators of learning," said George D. Kuh, who is one of the principal investigators of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, based at Indiana University at Bloomington. By that he meant projects and papers—preferably embedded within students' courses—that let students demonstrate their ability to apply the facts and concepts they have learned.
Speaking from the audience, Deborah A. Freund, president of the Claremont Graduate University, said that she had begun to believe that colleges should focus less on assessing student projects and more on studying what students do in the years after they graduate.
"It would be good to do longitudinal studies and follow people in their careers," she said, "to study how what they learned in college actually translates into greater productivity. The learning we're trying to measure in college courses is only an intermediate step."
Studies of alumni outcomes, she added, might be more useful to prospective students than the learning assessments that colleges typically pursue today. And they might also be more persuasive to the legislators whom Mr. Bennett fears.