Last week the White House released a first draft for what it ultimately intends to be a report card for the nation’s colleges. And there’s no way this effort will improve the lot of the typical college student.
Why would the White House delve into the ratings game given that nation’s newsstands already strain under the weight of numerous school ratings guides? The problem, according to the White House, is that U.S. News and the rest aren’t measuring the right things--specifically, how successful these schools are at graduating Pell Grant recipients and other low-income or at-risk students. However, middling graduation rates is a problem that can’t be solved with some new metrics and a few carrots and sticks, which is clearly the administration’s intent.
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that colleges will doubtless prove themselves as adept at gaming this system as they are at gaming the other college rankings. A rating system that penalizes schools that don’t graduate a sufficient proportion of its Pell Grant recipients will result in schools finding a way to avoid admitting students whose prospects for graduation might be marginal. In one fell swoop, an ostensible goal of this effort--improved access for low-income students--would be completely and utterly defeated.
Of course, the White House undoubtedly recognizes that possibility and could attempt to preclude such a thing from happening, perhaps by putting minority enrollment or other affirmative action goals into the report card. But schools could just spend more scarce financial aid money attempting to attract high-performing minority students, even if they don’t need such aid to afford college, and continue to ignore the marginal students--both white and black--who genuinely need the aid to attend school.
And if they were to include postgraduate income in the final report card we could see a radical change in what schools teach, with even less of an emphasis placed on liberal arts and more on finance or other professional degrees--surely not what this White House intends.
The result would be a system that makes life even more difficult for the schools that currently enroll the majority of low-income college student in the U.S.--the smaller regional state universities and small private colleges.
It’s true that too many college students fail to graduate or need more than four years to graduate, but predicating federal financial aid to schools on ameliorating this isn’t going to fix anything. Most public universities admit no small number of students who don’t necessarily have what it takes to succeed in college, at least not at the age of 18. They do so in part because they have a financial incentive to do so but also because colleges realize that beyond the obvious overachievers that mainly attend the flagship schools, it can be difficult to identify which high schoolers will excel academically and which are going to wash out. That colleges admit numerous 18 year olds who prove to be ill-equipped to succeed in college isn’t a bad thing: these students gain something--in terms of education and life experience--from their time in school, and no small number of them subsequently go on to graduate from college later on in their life, after they mature and gain the ability and motivation to succeed academically. And a sizeable fraction of those at-risk students do manage to navigate the shoals of college and complete their education in a timely manner.
I spent eight years teaching at just such a school and saw no small number of students who lacked the emotional maturity to succeed in college, for whom no amount of prodding or counseling was going to change that, at least not right away. I also encountered numerous older students who were giving college a second try and excelled. The initial college experience was integral to their subsequent success.
Our nation’s colleges may have some problems, but a government ratings system based on graduation rates or post-graduation income won’t fix a thing.
Ike Brannon is president of Capital Policy Analytics, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C. From 1994-2002 he was a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.