Education / Politics

College rating ≠ Blender rating

Designed to hold institutions of higher education accountable for their affordability and to assist students with their college selection process, President Obama’s college rating system remains highly controversial since its announcement last year. Discussions, especially criticisms, heated up recently as an education officer claimed that rating colleges is as easy as “rating a blender”. Well, not exactly. Going blender shopping is nothing like choosing a college; such a statement audaciously overlooks the complexity of higher education and the potential fallout resulting from such policy. In fact, not only is the methodology behind the policy debatable, but the rating system itself could also hurt students from lower-income families – the very population the policy intends to help, as pointed out by many critics.

The rating system seeks to evaluate schools based on metrics like graduate earnings, percent of students receiving Pell Grant, and tuition. Ultimately, besides providing students and parents with information, the federal government will use the rating to allocate its student aids to schools that score higher.

Don’t get me wrong – the aim of the policy is right-on: a College Board study finds that tuition for both public and private institutions have nearly tripled in the last three decades. Furthermore, according to a recent American Action Forum survey, 92 percent of the takers believe that college costs are too expensive. But at the same time, only 34 percent of the takers think it is the role of either federal or state government to ensure that college is affordable to all. The administration intended well in its response to the public demand for lower college tuition, but enforcing an unpopular rating system does not bring positive change.

Since the rating system places major emphasis on financial metrics rather than academic ones, schools’ rearrangement of resources in attempt to achieve higher scores does not necessarily improve the quality of their education. On the students’ side, as the president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities David Warren stated, the “quantitative” nature of the rating system reflects “policy makers’ priority”, while its implications for students are limited. When selecting universities, students are choosing an education that help them shape their worldview and develop their framework for knowledge. This is far more complicated, and arguably far more important, than simply doing math with tuition costs and their rate of return.

Could the policy harm the existing education system? Possibly. First of all, there is no effective way of inspecting the accuracy of the data submitted for rating. Tracking graduate earnings isn’t easy; nor is making sure the number isn’t a sham. According to a new analysis done by the American Council on Education, the Department of Education’s data system is based on self-reported data from colleges. What’s more, the data are only limited to “first-time, full-time degree/certificate-seeking undergraduates”, which means “6.7 million” of “part-time undergraduates”, as well as those “who delayed enrollment or are returning to higher education” are completely unrepresented. The technical difficulties in data collection could lead to wrong ratings and at worst direct federal aid to undeserving institutions. Besides the fact that data are considerably misrepresentative, and that colleges could manipulate and take advantage of the rating system, certain types of institutions would unjustifiably and disproportionally suffer from it. For example, many presidents of liberal arts colleges complained that schools with strength in arts and similar humanities programs would unavoidably score lower based on the official standard, since their graduates are less likely to lead lucrative careers than those who majored in scientific fields. Moreover, students who come from low-income families and underfunded schools often find it more difficult to enter a competitive university. As college presidents predicted, universities that actually serve those students would rank lowest and in turn receive less federal funding – the exact opposite outcome that policy makers envision the rating system to achieve.

Adding on to the possible drawbacks discussed above, there is the immediate impact from the cost of this regulation, which amounts to $10 million in FY15. For a policy without evident positive effect, the necessity of such substantial investment remains questionable.

With these concerns in mind, the administration might want to pursue alternative means to relieve families of costly tuition, most important of all being freeing institutions from burdensome federal regulations. Studies have found that colleges spend increasing amount of resources to comply with the rising tide of regulations in recent years – a major contributor to skyrocketing tuitions. A study by the American Action Forum has suggested several solutions that could help reduce college compliance costs, and in turn college tuition. In addition, benefits from improving K-12 education and better preparing student for higher education are self-evident and tangible.

Bottom line: rating colleges is not like rating blenders. The methodology is extremely complex, and the consequence is broad. Director of the Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz recently stated that the White House is not considering any problems raised by critics: “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.” When it comes to affecting the education of our future generation, policies as such may deserve more serious and more genuine public conversations.