Obama Administration’s College Rating Proposal Threatens Core Educational Values

As May turns to June and summer weather arrives, this blog will take a week-long break.  Back on Tuesday, June 3.

Over the weekend, the NY Times reported on Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s planned rating system for American colleges and universities.  At a time when we have seen an explosion of marginal, for-profit, often on-line institutions of higher education siphoning federal loans and grants that may never be repaid, I can understand that the federal government would seek to protect its investment, but surely our recent experiment with school accountability that ranks K-12 schools based on their students’ test scores should cause us to proceed cautiously.  There has been considerable collateral damage.

Caution is not part of the Administration’s plan, however.  Officials claim the Administration’s rating system will be in place by the end of the year: “Mr. Obama and his aides say colleges and universities that receive a total of $150 billion each year in federal loans and grants must prove they are worth it. The problem is acute, they insist: At too many schools, tuition is going up, graduation rates are going down, and students are leaving with enormous debt and little hope of high-paying jobs.”  The NY Times reports that, “Mr. Obama’s system would not rank schools numerically but would give them grades or ratings like ‘excellent,’ ‘good’ ‘fair’ or ‘poor.'”

Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, has pretty much announced this is a done deal: “For those who are making the argument that we shouldn’t do this, I think those folks could fairly have the impression that we’re not listening. There is an element to this conversation which is, ‘We hope to God you don’t do this.’ Our answer to that is: ‘This is happening.’ ”  And Arne Duncan, in his usual disdain for the status quo, commented: “We have a financial and moral obligation to be good stewards of these dollars. To defend the status quo, for me, you can’t do that.”

According to the recent  NY Times report and earlier coverage of plans to rate colleges, the factors will be graduation rates, price of tuition and fees, debt load students carry after they graduate, and even how much money students make after graduation, although this last data will be difficult to collect. Valuing salaries as a measure of educational quality is also controversial philosophically and ethically.  Do we measure a person’s contribution these days by the size of the salary? Would this mean business schools would be rated higher than colleges of education or nursing schools?  The stakes will be high according to the NY Times report: “Ultimately, Mr. Obama wants Congress to agree to use the ratings to allocate the billions in federal student loans and grants. Schools that earn a high rating on the government’s list would be able to offer more student aid than schools at the bottom.”

Although Jamienne Studley, deputy undersecretary at the Education Department, commented, “It’s like rating a blender.  This is not so hard to get your mind around,”  serious practical and philosophical questions arise from the point of view of the universities, colleges, and community colleges that would be rated.  Is it advisable to cut costs by replacing fully credentialed professors with part-time adjuncts?   Is it a good idea to make university research increasingly dependent on private funding streams that are more likely to define the purpose and boundaries of the research?  Should community colleges be downgraded because the very students they serve—part timers, often older adults, people working full time—are less likely to graduate in four or even six years?  Wouldn’t there be a built-in social class bias elevating elite colleges with large endowments, colleges that serve affluent students who can pay full freight?

In a 2008 book, The Race between Education and Technology, a history of the impact of our society’s education system on our economy, Harvard economists, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, credit our education system with six virtues that converged over time to enable our education system to serve our society well:  our education system has been publicly provided, publicly funded, secular, gender-neutral, broadly accessible, and open and forgiving.  They conclude, our schools’  “outcomes were far better than were those of other countries which often had educational systems with diametrically opposing features.  If the decentralization of America led to the growth of mass secondary schooling, then the centralization of control that characterized most European school systems stifled it.  If an open and forgiving system gave disadvantaged and errant youths a second chance, then the insistence on standards and accountability of many European systems reinforced a caste system.” (p. 132)  Goldin and Katz include the growth of our higher education system as furthering the values of accessibility and offering second chances:  “Openness is a hallmark of American education at all levels and nowhere is it more apparent than at the highest level.  In most states entrance to the state university was, at one time available to any high school graduate… Many states have at least two public institutions: a flagship university and a state university, and almost all have community colleges, often… those that bring college the closest to the people.” (p.260)

Mike Rose, the education writer who devoted his most recent book, Back to School, to the role of the community college, would, with Goldin and Katz, value the range of opportunity available to all kinds of students in our accessible and forgiving amalgam of institutions of higher learning.  “The democratic philosophy I envision would affirm the ability of the common person.  It would guide us to see in basic-skills instruction the rich possibility for developing literacy and numeracy and for realizing the promise of a second-chance society.  It would honor multiple kinds of knowledge and advance the humanistic, aesthetic, and ethical dimensions of an occupational education.” (p. 141)

Yesterday’s NY Times report is filled with criticism of the Administration’s plan from college presidents: “Applying a sledgehammer to the whole system isn’t going to work.” “It’s hard for me to imagine how that can work.” “I find this initiative uncharacteristically clueless.” “Oversimplified to the point that it actually misleads.”  The proposed rating system, however will be a project of the U.S. Department of Education.  Congressional debate and oversight are not required.

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