Unpacking Obama’s higher-ed plan
A college-performance ratings system will cast light on underperforming schools, but the numbers won’t tell us everything
Although it was his Rose Garden speech on Syria that grabbed headlines around the world on Saturday, President Barack Obama has given other talks in the last few weeks that are worth noting. Three took place on college campuses.
In his “college cost” bus tour in late August, Obama visited the University of Buffalo and Binghamton University in New York before swinging down to Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania. In a series of speeches, he outlined his plans to redesign how the federal government allocates student aid-.
The U.S. government currently provides more than $150 billion a year in student aid. The government dispenses this money based on the number of students who enroll at various schools, not on how much these students learn or what jobs or advanced degrees they acquire after graduation.
Obama’s proposal seeks to tie federal aid to college performance. He has called for the creation of a ratings system that would assess college performance by taking into account graduation and transfer rates and graduate earnings, among other factors. According to the plan, the president by 2018 will seek legislation that would funnel more federal aid to high-ranking colleges. This legislation would steer taxpayer dollars toward high-performing schools. Students would then maximize their federal aid at institutions providing the “best value,” the plan’s advocates say.
Obama has said that the publication of these ratings would make information about colleges more accessible and more complete for prospective students and families. By increasing transparency and redesigning incentives for aid allocation, Obama aims to help more students graduate with degrees, and with less debt.
Obama’s higher-education proposal is wide-ranging. Although his effort to rehaul incentives for states and institutions to better serve students is admirable, the plan threatens to exacerbate inequities between schools — to create a system of “loser” and “winner” institutions. It could also throw too much focus on what students earn after they graduate. We will not have space in this editorial (but perhaps a future one) to address many of the proposal’s elements, such as its enthusiastic treatment of online learning and its tightening of academic-progress requirements for student-aid recipients. We will restrict ourselves to commenting on the proposal’s most immediate consequence, assuming Obama moves forward as indicated: a public data pool charting college performance.
While Obama, or the president who follows him, will need to push legislation modifying federal-aid allocation through Congress, Obama does not need Congressional approval to establish a ratings system. He is directing the Department of Education to devise such a system and publish college ratings before the 2015 academic year.
This ratings system would provide an alternative to other college-ranking lists such as that of the U.S. News & World Report. Even if the government’s list does not form the basis of federal-aid allocation, governmental rankings would likely influence the public perceptions of various colleges and universities. A previously obscure university that notches a high rating could attract an influx of applicants. Conversely, the list could deal a significant blow to the reputations of the schools it describes as poor-value institutions.
There is a good chance that the University would do quite well on such a list. The University’s graduation rates are high, and its rates of indebtedness are, compared to national averages, low. In any case, the Department of Education ratings are something that University officials will have to contend with soon.
Publishing college ratings could shine a light on underperforming institutions. And, in the White House’s words, a public “Datapalooza” could aid prospective students in making informed choices about what colleges to attend. But such a list could do a great deal of damage in the name of transparency because of what it leaves out. We cannot expect a school attended by more low-income students to have the same amount of average debt as a school attended mostly by wealthy students. Harvard will have higher graduation rates than a school that draws students who may have attended troubled public high schools. Accessibility to low-income students and graduation rates often tug against each other: not because low-income students are not capable of college-level work, but because these students are frequently less well-prepared and have more demands on their time than wealthy students.
The ratings also leave off the part of college about which we care most: what students learn. Learning is very difficult to measure, so it does not factor into ratings, except insofar as job prospects and graduate-school admissions indicate undergraduate learning. Transparency is an admirable goal — but learning is the aim around which any higher-education overhaul must cohere.