Michael L. Lomax is president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund.
Last month, the Obama administration released the draft metrics of its long-awaited college rating system. Unfortunately, the proposed system appears to have major shortcomings — and it threatens to divert attention from the real challenges facing colleges and universities that educate large numbers of disadvantaged students.
Since the passage of the 1965 Higher Education Act, the role of the federal government has been to see that students with limited means get the opportunity for a college education. That job is far from finished — and the rating system won’t add a dollar of funding to close a growing resources gap or fulfill our nation’s promise of equal opportunity.
The rating system will, however, greatly expand federal intrusion into higher education — and it could create perverse incentives to game the ratings, potentially leading to reduced access to college for some low-income and minority students.
For anyone committed to equal opportunity, the case for expanding federal student aid is overwhelming. In the current decade, an estimated 1.4 million to 2.4 million students who are academically prepared for four-year colleges will not earn their bachelor’s degrees simply because they lack the resources to pay for college. At the same time, the maximum Pell Grant award of $5,730 now pays for less than one-third of the cost of attending a four-year public college — the lowest share in the history of the program.
The opportunity to attend college should be available to every qualified student who wants to earn a degree. And the failure to invest in equal educational opportunity is both a personal tragedy for those who will never gain the benefits of a college education and a national tragedy of wasted economic potential.
The problem is not just that the new rating system fails to expand educational opportunity and investment. It could even diminish access for some low-income and minority students. Starting in 2018, President Obama wants the ratings to be used as a basis for allocating federal student aid. The federal government is and should be responsible for ensuring that institutions of higher education meet basic standards through an independent accreditation process. But the federal government should not become the judge of institutional quality. That radical expansion of the federal role is a case of government overreach.
No college rating system can ever be perfect. But it turns out to be surprisingly complex to create a good system that reliably reflects the affordability, access and graduation rates of very different institutions.
It would be patently unfair to compare the graduation rates of Dillard University, a historically black college where I served as president, with, say, those of Harvard University. Yet the Education Department’s rating system may do just that by grouping all four-year colleges together. Harvard has a $36 billion endowment and enrolls academically elite students. Dillard has a $49 million endowment and enrolls many students who are not as academically prepared for college as their more advantaged peers.
Dillard’s current president, Walter Kimbrough, has analogized the challenge of designing a fair and reliable rating system to judging a diving competition — the ratings, as he puts it, must take account of the “degree of difficulty” in educating students. And fortunately, Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently told presidents of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that the ratings “will take account of the degree of difficulty that many institutions, including HBCUs, face in educating significant numbers of underprepared, disadvantaged students.”
If the ratings were to accurately reflect the degrees of difficulty that colleges and universities face, I have no doubt that HBCUs would fare well. Few, if any, comparable institutions can match their record for educating low-income, first-generation minority students. The nation’s 105 HBCUs make up just 3 percent of its two- and four-year colleges and universities. Yet they enroll 10 percent of African American undergraduates and produce almost 20 percent of the nation’s African American college graduates.
However, the draft metrics suggest that the college rating system will not genuinely reflect the degree of difficulty in educating disadvantaged students. The metrics emphasize retention and graduation rates, for example, without acknowledging that at-risk students disproportionately require remediation and significant institutional financial aid to remain in school and finish in a timely fashion; factors that delay and often derail students’ college dreams could also punish the very institutions they attend in large numbers by blaming them for results that fall below those of institutions with far fewer at-risk students. Worse, the rating system could lead some non-HBCU institutions to enroll fewer at-risk students to boost their ratings and financial aid.
Huge data gaps make it next to impossible to make reliable apples-to-apples comparisons of institutions. An institution’s graduation rate initially could be based on federal data that cover only full-time students who enroll as freshmen, leaving out significant numbers of students pursuing their degrees. According to the federal graduation rate data, President Obama was a college dropout. (He started full time at Occidental College but transferred to Columbia University before he got his degree).
The administration and, more importantly, disadvantaged students would be better served by solutions that simplify student aid and truly move the needle to enhance college access, affordability and attainment. More resources — not more regulation — must be the top priority in solving the nation’s college cost and completion crisis.
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