First Step to Deeper Reforms

By José L. Cruz

José L. Cruz is provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University, Fullerton. Previously, he served as vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust in Washington.


The federal government should rate colleges and universities on measures of access, success and affordability. I also believe that it should rethink the way it invests at least part of the more than $150 billion it distributes each year in student aid and loan program dollars.

Ideally, the rating and performance-based funding system would drive states, institutions and students toward the transformative change needed to tame student loan debt and jump-start social mobility. Developing such a system is hard, but models do exist. The Education Trust’s free College Results Onlinedatabase shows what a ratings system might look like.

But implementing an outcomes-based funding system would require the type of bold policy decisions that have become increasingly elusive. The fact that the government has been unable to protect students and taxpayers from the reckless actions of some for-profit institutions for so long undermines my confidence that it can spur change across all sectors of higher education.

And resorting to timid reforms will not get the job done. Today, young people in the lowest income quartile are seven times less likely than those in the upper quartile to obtain a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24. And student loan debt has skyrocketed beyond $1 trillion, exceeding auto and credit card debt.

Our best immediate hope is for colleges and universities to spend less time worrying about the potential unintended consequences of the proposed rating system and more time addressing the real plight of students, particularly those that have traditionally been underserved.

Those of us in public higher education know there’s more we can do to expand access, improve learning, increase degree completion rates, narrow achievement gaps, push the frontiers of knowledge, and better serve our communities. And we shouldn’t need carrots and sticks to take action.

We have long relished our role as engines of opportunity; it is now imperative that we deliver.

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Rating Could Have Unintended Consequences

By Michael Bastedo

Michael Bastedo, an associate professor of education, is the director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan.

Any government ratings system for universities will have serious consequences, many of which are unintended. Even with the rankings published by U.S. News & World Report, there are widespread examples of gaming and manipulation by colleges in the data they provide. Presidents have submitted ridiculous reputation surveys that disparage their competitors, and admissions offices have manipulated their statistics to improve their college’s standing. And this is just to get a better ranking in a magazine.

What can we expect if the Education Department connects student aid eligibility to the ratings? The pressure on institutions will be enormous, and undoubtedly some of them will choose unethical paths. Institutions will feel pressure to lower academic quality, graduate unqualified students, or reduce services to the low-income students who need a quality college education most. How will these issues be monitored and managed?

Data availability is also a real problem. Higher education insiders are well aware that the data needed to hold institutions accountable are of varying quality. We have the worst data on exactly the kinds of higher education institutions that would be most likely to receive the lowest ratings. So improving data quality for these colleges has to be an immediate priority. This issue is particularly worrisome if the Obama administration insists on rushing out these ratings in the coming year.

Finally, what exactly will happen to colleges that fail to meet some ratings benchmark? Eliminating student loan eligibility is essentially a death sentence for any college, and eliminating Pell Grant eligibility will be the same for any school with a significant low-income student population. Reducing eligibility makes little sense – some students at a school can get loans or Pell Grants, and other students cannot?

The Obama administration has to develop sanctions that do not damage the very students they are seeking to help. And rushing any plan out the door without thinking through these issues would be an enormous mistake.

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Great Value in Rating Tool

By Nancy L. Zimpher

Nancy L. Zimpher is the chancellor of the State University of New York.

As development of a government ratings system continues, input from across all sectors of higher education is crucial. There is great value in such a system for students, colleges and the federal government alike, but only if it is designed and implemented in a way that serves the distinct needs of each of these groups.

Of course, the system’s primary consideration should be its usefulness for students, as is the case with any college-related tool worth developing. So, as arguments for and against the concept are considered, it’s essential that we view the rating tool not as a means to rank our institutions for their effectiveness over one another, but to provide prospective students with information that helps them identify their academic needs and comprehensively measure our ability to satisfy those needs at a price they can afford.

Transparency is key. All of the aggregate metrics ultimately utilized in the ratings system should be made readily available to the public in an easy-to-access and straightforward manner. There can be no unnecessary confusion or frustration as students and parents use this tool.

When possible, the metrics should also be already available, in recognition of the substantial reporting requirements of colleges and universities to federal agencies, state departments and publications. Further, the new rankings present an opportunity to refresh current data systems like Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which has some known flaws. These measures will ensure accuracy and ease participation by allowing institutions to build reporting into existing procedures.

Finally, an ability to translate assorted campus missions must be considered. At SUNY, we have 64 campuses representative of every sector. Such differentiation provides a comprehensive program of higher education across our system, precisely like that of the nation’s. This balance of institutional diversity will need to be struck as methods for weighting and scoring are established.

To put it much too broadly, the development of a ratings system is a complex and massive – but not impossible – undertaking, one that is underway whether we like it or not. I commend President Obama and his administration for tackling this difficult endeavor and encourage my colleagues across the country to seek out an active role in the process.

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Distracting From the Real Issues

By Joseph B. Moore

Joseph B. Moore is the president of Lesley University in Massachusetts.

A federal college rating system will further stratify American higher education and create new barriers for low-income students. More than ever, wealthy students are attending institutions that spend more per student, have high graduation rates and subsequently graduates who earn robust incomes. Lower-income students attend institutions that spend less per student, have lower graduation rates and graduates who earn modest incomes. Money matters.

Whether rating or ranking, these lists reflect the marriage of wealthy students to wealthy institutions. If the Obama administration links federal financial aid to its rating system, there will be less aid for low-income students because they and their institutions don’t score well on measures of wealth.

The rating plan’s lack of specificity when the stakes are so high is alarming. This ill-conceived plan will not meet its declared objectives: It will not protect higher education consumers, will not stimulate states to spend more on higher education, and will not protect taxpayers’ investment in federal student aid.

Instead, this plan distracts us from urgently needed change in American higher education. It is a pedestrian response when we need vision, creativity and backbone to develop the new American workforce. Consider the Morrill Act that allowed grants, the G.I. Bill, the growth of community colleges, and the potential of digital technology. Rather than make history and explore bold ideas that capitalize on the strengths of our diverse system of higher education, it seems our federal government is choosing to squash diversity, subject colleges and universities to a set ratings formula, and manage a loan program with high interest rates that counts on student debt to offset the federal deficit. The real shame is the absence of a meaningful national agenda that enables more citizens to earn a college degree, enhances economic productivity, and restores a middle class.

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No Need to Centralize Education

By Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder is the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and a professor of economics at Ohio University.

Universities grade their students in every course. It is thus ironic that they so strenuously oppose the federal government wanting to grade them. That said, I do have some sympathy for universities: Would you want to be evaluated by an organization (the federal government) that cannot efficiently even run Obamacare or deliver the mail?

The rating system is a good news/bad news proposition. The good news is that colleges need to be held more accountable and face financial consequences for poor outcomes – students failing to learn or graduate. Vast numbers of students run up huge debts, only to find low-paying jobs upon graduating. It is time to evaluate and grade colleges more seriously, making them have more “skin in the game” financially when bad outcomes occur. My organization, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, ranks colleges for Forbes, and the volume of Internet traffic suggests rankings like these are useful to students planning their future. Theoretically, a federal rating system could spread good consumer information.

Yet I am afraid the “bad news” outweighs the “good news.” I fear a one-size-fits-all set of bureaucratic criteria established by the federal government will weaken the greatest strength of American higher education: its diversity. We have thousands of competing schools varying vastly in size, curriculum, political orientation, research emphasis, etc. I worry that the Feds might proclaim for all schools criteria such as “X percent of students must come from low-income groups if you want a high rating.” Why? Why can't individual institutions make that determination? What if the federal rule significantly lowers educational quality? We are overcentralizing higher education when we should let the states and private university boards determine its direction. On balance, then, I am opposed to the rating system.

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