Uncle Sam joins college ratings game


From The New Bern Sun Journal

College rankings, it seems, are everywhere.

There’s the Princeton Review, for one. Then there’s the one compiled by U.S. News and World Report. Don’t forget Forbes. It has one, too. Then, of course, there’s Rugg’s Recommendations, Wall Street Journal Recruiter and something known as College Prowler.

By browsing such listings potential students — but most likely their parents — can get the skinny on everything from best college bargains to where the big parties are and almost anything else in-between.

Now, President Barack Obama wants to get in on this crowded ratings game.

Last week, the president proposed a plan that he believes would make higher education “a better bargain.” A rating system factoring graduation rates and job placement for students isn’t without merit on its face. But its long-term impact could serve to damage great universities while also harming students who are most at-risk for not going to college at all.

The latter would be bitter irony indeed. The at-risk students are the ones the proposal most aims to help.

Obama’s proposal includes some strong elements, especially a public rating system for colleges that will help students make thoughtful choices about which schools are best for them. By using the system, families will have access to clear information, consistent from school to school, about the full costs, availability of financial aid, graduation rates and the earnings of alumni. They’ll discover that a higher tuition price isn’t necessarily the best indicator of career success.

The ratings might persuade colleges to hold the line on prices as newly informed families are empowered to make cost-benefit decisions. Right now, people can make a better-informed consumer decision about a $20 coffee maker than a $200,000 college education.

Where the president’s proposal veers into reductionism, though, is by tying the availability of financial aid to those ratings. Students would find federal financial help such as Pell grants easier to obtain at schools with higher graduation rates and postgraduate salaries, among other factors. The president also will pressure states to tie their funding of public colleges and universities to the ratings.

Such financial schemes could backfire on students who already face the biggest obstacles to a college education. It’s not hard for schools to lower their dropout rates. The cheap and easy way to accomplish this is by accepting the students most likely to graduate — the demographics of students at high risk of dropping out are well known — and lowering academic standards so that almost no one flunks. That’s not good for anyone.

The United States didn’t develop its great universities by reducing higher education to mere equations. It’s not that simple.

The wise course is for government to stay out of the ratings game and leave it to the private analysts already flooding the market.

 

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