The New York Times, December 17, 2013
LYNCHBURG, Va. — BY the beginning of the 2015 school year, college students will have yet another tool for evaluating their higher-education options — only this one won’t come from U.S. News and World Report or Playboy, but the Department of Education. And rather than ranking academic quality or opportunities to party, this list will rate schools on “value.”
At a time when the cost of college is soaring and millions of Americans are being shut out of higher education, a government-approved list of colleges that offer students more bang for their buck might sound like a good idea. But it’s not.
The ratings, proposed by President Obama in August, would evaluate schools based on criteria including tuition levels, graduation rates, how many students receive Pell grants and how much money recent graduates earn.
The problem is, the program won’t just shape the choices students make; it will create potentially perverse incentives for the schools themselves.
Ratings based on graduate earnings will encourage schools to minimize preparation for lower-paying but socially valuable professions like social work, ministry and preschool education. Ratings based on graduation rates will encourage them to admit fewer students who might be less prepared for college, who graduate in lower numbers.
These are particularly acute concerns for schools that already focus on helping low-income students, who tend to have lower graduate rates. The colleges are also relatively poor themselves, and do not have the ability to work with at-risk students in the same robust ways as wealthier schools.
Under the plan, such colleges therefore face a terrible paradox. The schools that already have the most experience with helping low-income students may end up looking like a poor choice.
I do not know how my own institution would fare in the president’s system. Some things about Randolph College would stand us in good stead: relatively low tuition compared with other private liberal arts colleges, generous financial aid, a fair number of students with Pell grants and a rising graduation rate.
If the White House included the incomes of our recent graduates, the only measure I know of would be to match students with federal loan debt to their income tax returns; I have no idea how the incomes of that portion of Randolph graduates compare with those from other schools. The measurement problems inherent in the new rating system — among other things, you can do pretty well on $40,000 a year here in Lynchburg, but just try getting by on it in Manhattan — can make it impossible to know how any school will look once the numbers are published.
Indeed, that points up perhaps the most central problem with the president’s proposed rating system: the idea that everything can be measured.
There is no way to accurately reduce the complex issues in higher-education quality — graduation rates, loan debt, percentage of Pell grant recipients, lifetime income — to a single rating number. Getting more low-income students to graduate from college would be an unqualified good, but that doesn’t mean they are prepared for the working world.
There is a simpler solution to the president’s desire to provide more information to low-income students and their families. The White House could make all the data it thinks is important available on a searchable website. Rather than attempt to reduce the information to one number, or to rate schools against one another in an arbitrary way, the administration should make many types of data easily available and let people rate schools for themselves.
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to the problem of how to get more low-income students into college, or how to see them through to graduation. More information may help some families make better choices about where their children should attend college, but that information alone does not address the cultural barriers to access or the structures that are most needed to help students succeed.
Nor will that data tell students whom they will attend class with, what kind of social pressures will be placed on them by their peers or what the classroom environment will be like. The data will also tell us nothing about the advising systems at different colleges. Where will low-income students get good advice about course selection or the emotional and moral support they might need when they encounter difficulties?
Understanding the cultural feel of a campus and knowing which schools offer good advising would be much more important for most low-income families than the data the president wants to collect and distill into a single number.
The president is right to highlight the poor educational opportunities available to many low-income students. To ignore this problem would be to abandon the American dream. But he needs more than numbers to get the job done.