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Update: Studies Look at Value-Added for College Graduation

Researchers and policymakers are still debating when and how to evaluate teachers using their students' test scores, but another group of studies suggests similar value-added methods may be able to show how well colleges get their students through to degrees.

Robert Kelchen, a doctoral candidate in educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Douglas N. Harris, an associate economics professor at Tulane University in New Orleans (and previously also at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), analyzed data on six-year graduation rates, ACT or SAT placement-test scores and the percentage of students receiving federal need-based Pell grants at 1,279 colleges and universities from all 50 states from 2006-07 through 2008-09.

Mr. Kelchen told me the ACT/SAT and Pell grant information can help explain about 60 percent of the variation in graduation rates among colleges, so the team also included other demographic and institutional measures that can explain another 15 percent of the differences.

The researchers found that schools known to lead the ranks of popular and prestigious colleges were not necessarily the best value in terms of cost versus likelihood of earning a degree. They adjusted for the cost of each college for both families, via the net price of attending, and for policymakers, in the public's educational spending (such as subsidized student loans) for each full-time equivalent student.

"None of the top 10 colleges in our value-added measures are also among the top 10 in the U.S. News rankings," the researchers wrote, adding that "...by privileging resources and prestige over institutional effectiveness, the rankings create a systematic disadvantage for colleges serving lower-income and lesser-prepared students."

When bringing cost and degree completion into the equation, the researchers found two universities—both in South Carolina—that both topped value-added rankings and popularity with families: South Carolina State University, a historically black university in Orangeburg, and the The Citadel military college in Charleston.Of course, Mr. Kelchen noted that these are examples, not a complete list of potential colleges.

In a related study, Jesse M. Cunha, an assistant economics professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, and Trey Miller, an associate economist at the research group RAND Corp., found that while yearly test scores—the most commonly used metrics for value-added methods—are not generally available in higher education, researchers and policymakers can use student persistence, degree completion and wages after college to create value-added measures for colleges.

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