Federal College Ratings: An Opportunity of Higher Education

People in higher education are nervous. President Obama’s interest in developing a new federal college rating system has a number of us facing this potential change with a bit more than a little trepidation. Given the context we find ourselves within, I cannot say our anxiety about it is unexpected or without merit. Over the last decade our industry has faced a scrutiny unlike any it has experienced in the past. Shrinking state funding for public schools, increased competition for students, contrasting demands for elevated education standards as well as completion rates each presents a real, if surmountable existential threat. When taken as a whole, this Voltron of challenges can seem like a monster- a beast greater than the sum of its (mechanical tiger) parts.

Having said all that, I do not see the proposed rating system as a bad thing for higher education, at least not necessarily so. Universities are already getting ranked by national and global media outlets, and most of us aren’t exactly sure how we get the rankings that we do. If the rankings make us look good, we mention it to anyone that will listen, if we don’t then we either ignore them or talk about how they are biased towards one thing or the other. More importantly, we should remember that we do not know what metrics this new rating system will use yet. We have some indication that a few of the usual metrics will be included, such as affordability, completion rates and so on. But we don’t yet know the whole story, nor do we know how those disparate metrics will be synthesized into a single rating (if that is in fact what will happen).

The fact that the system is still being written is a tremendous opportunity for higher education as a profession. Rather than oppose or delay as some have suggested, I believe we have the chance to contribute to the development of a good rating system. Who knows better than those of us who have devoted their careers to educating our students about what successful, valuable education looks like? Who knows the limits and paradoxical effects of currently used metrics? If we must be subjected to this type of system (and given how most of us are funded, I am not suggesting that we should not), I think we have both an opportunity and responsibility to make sure it is a useful one.

I will be the first to admit my tenure as an institutional researcher is short in comparison to many of my colleagues. I offer this admission not as an expression of humility, or as an excuse for missing some subtle point (if I have, I will be thrilled to consider any feedback). Rather, I mention my tenure to clarify my perspective as a relative outsider to the field. A context that I think allows me to identify issues and inefficiencies others might no longer notice. The suggestions offered in the posts that follow have their origin in my experience elsewhere, as well as not yet sharing many of the assumptions more experienced professionals must learn to become more efficient at their tasks. Of course, there is a better than zero chance that others have similar ideas and I simply have yet to run across them.

Article continues: Federal College Rating: Clarifying Higher Education Outcomes

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