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Eight ways to get higher education into shape

"You introduce some perverse incentives when you start making the information public," said Alexander McCormick, director of the student-engagement survey.

Any federal effort to require standardized testing in colleges would launch a rhetorical battle for the ages. Reformers suggest an alternative: Accreditors, whose academic reviews are key to a school's survival, could require colleges to publish proof of student learning as a condition for accreditation.

"Instead of people saying, 'You can't do this,' now the conversation is about how you do this, and I think that's very positive," said Roger Benjamin, president of the Council for Aid to Education, which administers the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

2. End merit aid

Few policy leaders would seriously propose eliminating financial aid based on academic merit, an essential variable in today's competitive college-admissions marketplace.

Yet, critics deride merit aid as affirmative action for the wealthy, a system that increases access for students who can afford college without it.

"There are colleges where the average price paid by rich kids is lower than the average price paid by poor kids, and the reason is merit aid," said Sandy Baum, an independent policy analyst.

Thirty years ago, merit aid was the rare scholarship to the extraordinary student, the vestige of an era when smart people might not go to college without a cash incentive.

Today, many upper-income families enter the college search with an expectation of merit aid. They shop for colleges as they would for cars, weighing offers from rival schools, haggling with admissions officers, effectively auctioning off a star student to the highest bidder.

Private colleges dispense merit aid at a rate of $2,060 per student, while public colleges spend $410 per student, according to College Board data

It's natural that families would shop around: The sticker price at top private colleges can exceed $50,000 a year in tuition and living expenses, beyond the reach of the middle class.

But merit dollars are spent, by and large, on students who would go to college, anyway. A middle-class student denied merit aid by a $50,000-a-year college might not be able to afford that college, but he or she can still afford college.

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