Expanding Accountability through Rating and Ranking of Colleges: A Bad Idea

In Silly Season at the U.S. Department of Education, Dr. Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, explores serious concerns about President Obama’s recent proposal that the federal government bring the kind of accountability that has been imposed on K-12 public education to colleges and universities.  The President and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have proposed that the Department of Education rate and rank colleges and universities and make federal aid and loans more available to students at those institutions that make themselves accountable to federal standards.

In August, Tamar Lewin, writing for the N.Y. Times summarized the President’s plan: “to rate colleges before the 2015 school year based on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend…  Mr. Obama hopes that starting in 2018, the ratings would be tied to financial aid, so that students at highly rated colleges might get larger federal grants and more affordable loans. But that would require new legislation.”

While it is a good idea to encourage universities to serve more low-income students, all of the issues in the President’s plan are far more complicated than they appear.  Dr. McGuire questions whether it will be possible for the government to rank colleges by their educational outcomes: “Plenty of people who actually do know what they’re talking about have raised numerous legitimate issues about the ability of this government to implement a collegiate rating system based on some pretty dubious data.”

Dr. McGuire explains that while expanding access for low income students is a desirable and worthy goal, colleges must find a way to finance the additional services and courses such students need. She questions the value of ranking colleges and universities by their graduation rates: “Institutions that do a great job providing access for low income students take the risk of lower graduation rates since the students do not progress through the system in the same way as the more privileged traditional students…. Women students stand to lose a lot in this new regulatory scheme… these are students who share characteristics like working nearly full-time, raising children as single parents, are self-supporting, attend school part-time in some semesters, being the first generation in college, commuting to campus, often attending multiple institutions…”

President Obama also proposes to measure and compare the earnings of graduates as part of his college ranking scheme. While Dr. McGuire doesn’t address this factor, it represents a worrisome trend in many of the policies of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education: quantifying and monetizing as the way to define value.  If a teacher or a social worker feels called to such a vocation and does a good job, should we measure that person’s lifetime contribution by the work itself or by the salary paid for that work?  Should we we be developing a college ranking system that rewards institutions that produce sports stars and financial tycoons and embeds the worst values of consumer capitalism into the policies of the U.S. Department of Education?