Yawn. Another state-by-state report card, this one on higher education.

For all the hoopla — a lot of very wealthy foundations have spent a lot on this project — what it mostly shows is that torturing statistics eventually produces goulash.

The report is titled "Measuring Up 2000," and it was produced for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, an idea shop established in 1998 by the Pew Charitable Trusts. It's on the Web at ( www.highereducation.org).

It establishes five categories to measure the effectiveness of state policies: preparation, participation, affordability, completion and benefits (economic and civic), and awards a letter grade in each of the five.

Nominally, there is a sixth category, learning. But since no state measures how much college students learn, the report card just gives every state an "incomplete" for learning.

Never mind.

The feasibility study panel met for the first time in July 1998 at the Boar's Head Inn in Charlottesville, Va., a charming detail provided by David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and eventually chairman of the panel that oversaw the production of the report card.

The early days were long and hard as the panel grappled with the realization that higher education is not compulsory and that students frequently attend out-of-state colleges.

"We began to realize why no other organization had tried to prepare a higher-education report card," Breneman says in his essay.

But they won through at last, persuading themselves and their funding sources that the task could be done, and done moreover by the National Center — "an independent organization free from special-interest constituencies."

Yeah.

Is the result of all this effort useful? Not very. So California tops the list for affordability? No surprise there; the state's master plan gives California residents free tuition.

Forty percent of a state's grade for participation is based on the percentage of high school freshmen who enroll in college somewhere within four years. It's an awkward statistic, partly capturing information about the high school dropout rate and partly what fraction of graduates go on to college immediately. Its chief merit seems to be that it is available for all 50 states.

That reminds me of the story about the drunk who was looking for his car keys under the lamppost because the light was better there.

If any sensible policy initiatives emerge from this kind of nonsense, it will be a miracle. And they're already planning for two updates, in 2002 and 2004. Maybe they should all go back to the Boar's Head and just do lunch. It'd be cheaper.


Contact Linda Seebach of the Denver Rocky Mountain News at ( www.rockymountainnews.com).