Why the Obama administration should drop its plan to rate colleges

Gettysburg College (www.gettysburg.edu/)
Gettysburg College (www.gettysburg.edu/)

A group of college presidents met recently with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and among the topics that were discussed was the Obama administration’s plans to make colleges more transparent about value and outcomes for students.  In this post, Janet Riggs, president of Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa., explains her concerns with Obama’s plans and warns about unintended consequences.

By Janet Riggs

President Obama wants to use the power of the federal government to make choices for students and families about higher education. A proposed new rating system would use federal student aid as a means of pushing students towards certain institutions of higher learning and away from others. One might reasonably wonder what the government is trying to accomplish with such a strategy.

Last week I was among a small group of college presidents who were invited to discuss the proposed system with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Secretary Duncan said that the government wants to assure that families and students have accurate information about institutions of higher education as they make their college choices. This is a goal that I fully support.  Colleges should be as transparent as possible about student outcomes. At my institution we share graduation rates, average loan debt, and career and graduate school placements with prospective students, and we would be willing to share more. During the meeting, our group agreed that sharing clear information was important and that we would be willing to develop new methods for sharing our data in ways that could be more easily understood.

So if we are so willing to be transparent, why are those of us in higher education concerned about this new ratings initiative? And why should the public be concerned as well?

The “twist” is that the proposed rating system will not just require colleges and universities to provide more information about their students’ outcomes. Rather, it will give college and universities a rating based on metrics that could include the percentage of students receiving Pell grants, average tuition and loan debt, graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees. To encourage colleges and universities to improve on these metrics, the federal government will provide more student financial aid to institutions that rate more highly. That is, students will only be able to receive a full Pell grant if they decide to go to an institution that is government-approved.

On the surface, such a rating system might seem reasonable. However, a closer look reveals that it is fraught with unintended potential negative consequences. Here are some examples:

*A student in a single parent family wishes to go to college, but must live at home to care for her chronically ill mother. She has decided to apply to a nearby college that has mediocre graduation rates due to the fact that it serves many part-time commuter students. This is her only real choice, and she is highly motivated to get her degree. The student is denied Pell funds because this college has been given a negative rating by the federal government due to the fact that its graduation rates do not reach the standard set by the government. Therefore, the student gives up on her dream to go to college.

A college long known for preparing excellent teachers drops it education program, because its graduates are pulling down the graduate earnings profile of the institution, increasing its likelihood of losing Pell funding. The college closes its education program and begins a school of business instead. 

     *  A student interested in pursuing a career in social work wishes to apply to a college that has an excellent social work program. However, the student learns that there will be more Pell money available to him if he attends another college, because the other college offers degrees in engineering and nursing that typically yield higher salaries the first year out of college. The student feels forced to forgo his first choice and decides to attend the alternate college, which does not have a high quality social work program.

These kinds of unintended consequences from the proposed rating system should cause us all concern.  As one college president remarked, we can all do what we need to do to make our numbers look good for the new rating system, but will we be making the best decisions for our institutions and our students?

Secretary Duncan rightly asserts that many members of the general public have trouble making informed decisions about higher education. One of the virtues of the American system of higher education is its breadth and diversity, but there are so many choices that it can be confusing. We have an obligation to help students and families make their choices with the appropriate information at hand and provided in a way that is easy to understand.  I would gladly accept the federal government encouraging—or requiring—us to provide that information. But the strategy of producing yet another set of college ratings is not the solution. So what is the solution?

I would suggest the development of a set of measures that all institutions are required to report, allowing for context to be provided based on the institution’s mission and particular circumstances. Providing information in this way would allow students and their families to decide more easily which institution is right for them and then apply their federal financial aid accordingly.  Institutions with a history of poor student outcomes would surely have more difficulty attracting students and would therefore have the incentive to improve their performance to ensure their survival.

There is no question that it is incumbent on higher education to provide students and their families with the information they need to make informed choices.  But the federal government should not be in the business of using financial aid awards as a way of pushing students towards certain institutions and away from others.

Students and their families should make their own choices about their education.  The government should not make their choices for them.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · November 23, 2013