It’s Time for a “Higher Ed NAEP”


July 30, 2015

By Mary Nguyen Barry

Education Secretary Arne Duncan was right earlier this week when he said college access must go much further than college affordability. As he said, college access must also focus on whether students are graduating in a timely way with a meaningful degree.

But what exactly does a meaningful degree entail? In one important aspect, it should mean a degree that can lead to stable employment and successful repayment of student loans. In this regard, the Obama Administration has been successful by confronting the very worst actors with its landmark Gainful Employment regulations.

Related: Obama’s Crackdown on For-Profit Colleges (VIDEO)

But another important aspect – one that remains largely un-discussed by this Administration – is student learning. The dirty little secret of higher education is that degree conferral does not actually signify any particular knowledge or skill level. A degree is meant to be a proxy for academic achievement, but available evidence suggests that’s far from the truth:

1. A groundbreaking study found that over one-third of 2,000+ tested students at 24 colleges showed no gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills after four years.

Higher Ed NAEP Blog Summary Graphics-1
2. A national literacy assessment found over two-thirds of college graduates lacked basic numerical literacy and couldn’t comprehend and compare common narrative texts like two opposing newspaper op-eds. If anything, certain literacy skills have actually gone down in the decade between 1992 and 2003 (the most recent data available):

Taken from A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, A Report of the Commission Appointed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, 2006.

International comparisons, too, have found U.S. college graduates
lag the international average in technology and math skills.

3. A Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll, meanwhile, finds that while 96 percent of college administrators felt confident that students were prepared for success in the workforce, only 11 percent of business leaders agreed. In a separate study, employers report satisfaction with the preparation of barely a quarter of four-year college graduates.


Secretary Duncan’s remarks rightly noted that the President has expanded the higher education policy debate from one focused merely on access and affordability to also success. In order to continue that legacy, it’s now time for the next President to set the stage for the ultimate higher education success movement: Accountability for student learning outcomes.

To kick off that movement, we think it’s finally time for a “Higher Ed NAEP.”

Because whereas we’ve had achievement and proficiency data on elementary and secondary students for the past 50 years, there’s no higher education counterpart. Whereas we’ve had a baseline understanding of K-12 student learning and could track improvements over time for all students, subgroups of students, and by states, none of that exists for higher education. We have no trend data to see if the nation is gaining more skilled and knowledgeable citizens in exchange for increased public resources and private tuition. Essentially, we have no idea what we’re paying for.

Critics might blanche at the idea of another testing regime – but this proposal is not calling for mandatory testing of every college student or every institution. This proposal would also not call for an assessment of discipline-specific skills.

Instead, similar to NAEP, we would recommend starting with a national assessment of a representative sample of graduating college students in the United States. Students would be tested on vital academic skills that should transcend all majors and form the basis for any four-year undergraduate education – reading, critical thinking, numerical problem solving, and writing. Student learning achievement data would be aggregated and presented at the national, sector, and state level. The same data would then be disaggregated by age, gender, race, and family income to illustrate achievement gaps.

Only when we have this data can we have a national indicator for what our college graduates know and are able to do at the end of a four-year college education. It can help answer important questions like whether diversity efforts are simply manifested in college admission offices or if they also lead to meaningful educational opportunities for underserved groups of students. We can learn whether students are learning more in California, Pennsylvania, or North Carolina and how states’ higher education investments impact student learning. Are there certain states that truly do warrant employer relocation and investment?

It’s time that we get to the bottom of what a college degree really “means.” Our students’, taxpayers’, and nation’s vitalities depend on it.

For more mechanics on how a “Higher Ed NAEP” could work and the 45th President’s challenge, read our latest report.