Kevin Carey: All universities are pretty much the same, no matter what they say

'The real differences exist at the departmental level'

The instructional value within a college or university varies much more than institutions do to one another—and that creates massive issues for students, argues New America's education policy director Kevin Carey in the New York Times' "The Upshot."

In a synthesis of "many thousands" of independent studies conducted over decades, the most recent edition of "How College Affects Students," published in 2005, finds that most universities really do not vary from each other, writes Carey.

"The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth ... in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude," according to the book authors Ernest Pascarella of the University of Iowa and Patrick Terenzini of Pennsylvania State University.

U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings further confuse the issue by rewarding schools for their wealth and selectivity, says Carey. Consumers are taught their choices are between entire colleges that vary qualitatively.

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"People can learn a lot in college, and many do. But which college matters much less than everyone assumes," he argues. "The real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors."

This is part of the reason why a third of students at four-year institutions transfer or stop attending within three years, Carey claims. It is also why efforts to improve and regulate colleges so often fail: initiatives are based on what he says is the incorrect idea that schools differ from each other.

It is "an impossible task" to ensure an entire college or university "is educationally sound," he concludes (Carey, "The Upshot," New York Times, 7/23).

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