Recently, President Obama made waves when he visited three college campuses and talked about plans to make higher education more affordable. One of his proposals included implementing a rating system that would provide the general public with greater details about the total cost, graduation rates and alumni earnings of individual colleges and universities. Students choosing schools with higher ratings would have more access to Pell Grants and affordable loan programs. The plan is twofold in nature—first, getting more useful information into the hands of consumers and, second, providing better affordability for young people who seek out higher education.
The rising cost of a college degree has been a concern for the Obama administration. College graduates in 2010 left their schools with an average of $26,000 in debt, leading to higher student loan debt in America than credit card debt. In order to reach his goal of leading the world in percentage of college graduates by 2020, Obama has been vocal about lowering the cost of the college process and providing more targeted, useful programs that address the needs of the economy. He has also called for more investments in community colleges and individual vigilance on the part of colleges to help rein in costs of higher education.
This new “college scorecard” proposal is just one more step in that direction. Like public K-12 schools, colleges would be held more accountable by the federal government and would be compared to each other through data that truly matter. Right now federal student aid is doled out mainly on college enrollment numbers, to the tune of $150 billion annually, and there is no accountability for that money. This plan would ensure that the schools benefiting students the most would be rewarded.
Numerous publications claim to have the perfect formula in place for ranking the “best colleges and universities” based on a variety of factors, but none are officially sanctioned by the government. The president’s ranking plan would avoid the fluff of other rating systems and address the core of educational matters: cost, graduation success and chances for achievement in the career that follows. These are the real stats that all students, whether recent high school graduates or those returning to campus for the first time in a few decades, need to make informed decisions.
The advantages for disadvantaged students
In terms of minority students, the college ranking plan is beneficial. Though minority college student numbers are rising, 61 percent of college students in 2010 were considered Caucasian in comparison to just 14 percent Black students, 13 percent Hispanic students and 6 percent Asian or Pacific Islander students. Based on these statistics alone, minority students are at a disadvantage when it comes to attending and graduating from college. Every student situation is different, but the cost of college and accompanying loan interest rates certainly play into the unbalanced collective college population.
A ranking system that effectively provides more grant money and more affordable loan options to students will make the dream of a college education a reality to more minorities. As more first-generation minorities attend colleges, choosing schools with high graduation rates (many of which are likely to have strong guidance policies in place) and good job placement will mean more career successes. Not only will the plan drive down individual costs of college attendance, but it will better ensure that those same students complete their college training and find work.
The time has arrived for colleges to be held more accountable to their consumers. A ranking system with federal oversight will certainly put the pressure on institutions of higher learning to perform well, benefiting attendees.
What do you think the college scorecard system should include?
While I follow the argument about how this rating system is advantageous to disadvantaged students individually, I’m less convinced that this is beneficial to disadvantaged communities (and to the nation) as a whole. Such rankings which capture tangible benchmarks, like post-graduation earnings, tend to overlook many of the social benefits to, say a liberal arts education. In the AA community, there is a clear divide in the demeanor, lifestyle, cognitive well-being, voter turnout rates and countless other measures between college educated and non-college educated individuals. The majority of the individuals north of that divide are liberal-arts educated graduates of HBCUs. This is a difficult-to-quantify benefit to the AA community. I fear that rankings of the sort being proposed in the long run devalue or fail to capture this. Worst, they make it that much more difficult for HBCUs to attract students and continue the work of raising the standard of living in the AA community as a whole. In short, these rankings seem to be all about what is best for individuals, not what is best for their communities.
Finally, there is a bigger issue for us to consider as a nation. As a practicing, US trained engineer, who has had the benefit of travel and interaction with other engineers around the globe, it has become clear to me that while some nations are able to graduate high quality engineers in large numbers, this does not automatically translate to innovation or technical leadership (South Korea, Japan and China come to mind). Rather, innovation comes from countries that produce a good balance of technical and liberal arts graduates (US and certain European nations come to mind). While it is true that in the US this balance may have shifted too far left leaving the nation with a dearth of engineers, we need to be careful that we don’t over-correct and find ourselves in a country filled with non-creative techies unable to innovate.
September 12, 2013 at 7:15 am
But what if the ranking system shows that institutions that serve the largest proportion of students of color, especially first-generation and low income students, perform less well. And what if these students tend to have limited means to choose from among other institutions, either due to their performance record or being place-bound? Then it would be harder for these students to access federal funds and it could readily lead to higher debt levels.
Be careful what you ask for.
September 12, 2013 at 9:32 am
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