Obama’s newest bad education idea

(By Carlos Osorio/AP)
President Obama announcing his plan to reduce college costs. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

President Obama’s newest education reform idea, aimed at making college more affordable, is a plan that on its face seems helpful to families but isn’t.

Obama said late last month that his administration is, by 2015, setting up a system to rate colleges and universities and then link federal student aid to those ratings by 2018. Should the federal government be in the business of rating schools? Here’s what Catholic University President John Garvey said when my colleague, Nick Anderson, asked a number of college and university presidents what they thought of Obama’s new plan:

I’m not sure it’s a great idea to have the federal government rate colleges. How would you feel about having the federal government rate newspapers? There is something squidgy about having the government, federal or state, oversee our intellectual life in any of its important sectors …

Among the data points that will be included in the rating scheme are:

* the percentage of students receiving Pell grants
* average tuition, scholarships and loan debt
* graduation and transfer rates
* advanced degrees of college graduates
* how much graduates earn when they leave school

The earnings of graduates? Really? Pity the school that has a strong poetry program and sends more poets into the world. Or social workers. Or teachers.

Transfer rates? Schools are going to be held responsible for students who decide to leave a school because they realize they would do better in a different academic or social environment?

Tuition? Public school tuition is in part determined by public subsidies, so when a state legislature cuts funding for public education, these schools suffer. How fair is it to judge a school on a metric that is affected by what a legislature does?

Graduation rates? What’s the cutoff? Four years? Six years? More? What’s fair? And the real problem is that schools graduation rates are calculated on first-time full-time students. That means kids who transfer in or second-time students looking for a fresh start aren’t included.

The White House’s fact sheet on the upcoming ratings says that the ratings

… will compare colleges with similar missions and identify colleges that do the most to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as colleges that are improving their performance.

The goal of reducing college costs is a most worthy one. But it can’t be done with a government rating system that includes data that have no real meaning.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | September 3, 2013