Federal College Rating: Clarifying Higher Education Outcomes

What is higher education for? Why do students spend an additional 4+ years of their wage-earning lives to get a baccalaureate degree? Why do parents, taxpayers, charity providers, employers and other vital stakeholders agree to pay for this activity? Until we agree on an answer to this central issue, we will not be able to agree to any rating scale to measure it. Unfortunately, it just so happens that agreeing on that purpose is among the thorniest issues in higher education.

Many students, parents and policymakers see higher education as a way to enhance a student’s earning potential. Others see higher education as a way of expanding an individual’s mind and fount of experience. From a broader perspective, education can serve as a way of preserving a democracy by promoting the development of traits necessary for responsible use of power. While each individual has their own reasons for seeking or funding higher education, these are the three most discussed in higher education circles (at least, most often encountered by me). Each of these are valid and more than one of these can motivate a single individual at any given time.

I do not see an effective way of deciding which of these motives is, or should be, most important. I would be suspicious of anyone suggesting they could. This is why I believe a good rating scale must take each of these motives into account. I can think of a few different ways of pulling this off and if I can do it after thinking about it for a few minutes, I am certain others can as well.

One of the reasons people in higher education are concerned about a potential ranking is that too many decision-makers are focusing on the vocational benefits of higher education. Moving forward with a  federal ranking system that focuses exclusively on vocational benefits would be a mistake, if for no other reason than it would be akin to measuring the volume of water in a swimming pool with a ruler (Yes, it can be done, but you know what I mean). Aside from the inadequacy of measuring a complex phenomenon with an overly simple device, we must acknowledge that there is more to higher education than vocational outcomes. I can think of more cost-effective ways of training a labor pool to perform a job and I am not sure that the public should bear the cost of providing a trained workforce.

We must also remember that it takes much more than a college degree to develop a successful career. Technical knowledge of one’s chosen career is certainly necessary, but it is never sufficient. We must also have discipline, ambition, the ability to work with others, the ability to lead others, the ability to persuade, to communicate and to endure hardship. Any individual’s professional success is only partially attributable to their experiences in higher education. The best case scenario of over-reliance on vocational outcomes to rate colleges would lead to a hopelessly confounded and error-riddled measure. At the worst case, we incentivize the reduction/elimination of non-vocational benefits of higher education.

By the same token, it is important that people in higher education accept the fact that vocational benefits are important drivers of increased demand for their services. I know it was important to me when I first started my journey. It was certainly important to my family. They wanted a better life for me than they had for themselves, and college seemed like the only way to accomplish that. We cannot think about vocational outcomes as somehow base, or vulgar, or even simply less important than other higher education motives. Vocational outcomes are vital to the individual, at least in society as it exists today, and they should measure prominently in any college rating scale.

Article Continues: Federal College Ratings: Metric Consistency and Transparency

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