Recently reports began pouring into social media, gossip pages, and general news sites about a new rating system from the federal government for universities. The initiative, which has not been written yet, has created controversy in higher education circles as they fear it will impact funding. In the modern information society, however, ratings like this exist for everything from films and makeup to bottled water and podcasts. In order to stay relevant with the changing focus of how Americans evaluate a product (i.e. peer reviews) it is of paramount importance to provide this information to the general public by a nonpartisan organization at a national scale.
The White House created initiative aims to rate colleges on a national scale to present useful information on return of investment to college bound students and their parents. The idea would be to place all public universities in cohorts and then assign them a rating (like a grade) for service they provide as a means of oversight for the educational industry. The ranking system would combine metrics such as student completion, alumni employment, and size of school. White House representatives have stated that they will not release any definite information till the end of 2014 as they are still collecting and researching how to construct the system.
Outside of being accredited by groups like the Higher Learning Commission and others, most universities are given free rein to create their curriculum with little oversight. This is cause for concern from the public that either A) attended college and are attempting to get a job or B) are preparing to go to college. It is hard to know if an institution is preparing its students for their future. Does a university give its graduates a competitive edge in the job market? Do alumni find work in their field or work at all? These are all questions a university should be able to answer to taxpayers and perspective students.
Several groups have spoken against the rating system as they believe it will punish schools that focus on philanthropy directed courses. Career paths like psychologists and school teachers could make universities look like their graduates do not make comparable wages to lawyers or business analysts. If alumni salaries were factored into a college’s ranking then they could end up losing funding from the government for these needed individuals in the workforce.
Another concern is that the ranking system could be directly attached to the amount of funding each public college takes in. If a college is not performing well, having its funding taken away from it may just displace students that could not gain entrance anywhere else. Consider a community college in a poor area that only receives local students. They may be the first people in their families to go to college. These students are more likely to have families that they support. A single flat tire or sick child could force them to withdraw or drop out altogether. A school like Yale or Columbia on the other hand would likely have students who are prepared to pay the costs or have enough scholarships to offset the costs. These students would have a safety net against dropping out making these more prestigious expensive schools possibly have artificially higher scores in the wrong system.
Not only that, but needy and at risk students from rural or inner city areas would likely suffer as their performance may not reflect that of their university but rather socioeconomic and cultural aspects of their background. Some are concerned that this decision could deepen gaps between poor and rich students. A small rural public institution that focuses on agriculture would likely draw different students than a large urban private institution that focuses on technology. If those students were placed against one another they would a disparity between wages, academic goals, social circles, interest, and career goals.
What it means however for colleges right now is that they need to be preparing for more assessment. In an assessment heavy-environment this may sound ludicrous but many colleges actually do not have an institution wide assessment strategy. Often each department is left to fend for itself and decide requirements for completing a degree. Alumni metrics are often self reported and national student exams (like the CAAP or GRE) are often not mandatory. This means students largely never get properly assessed for how prepared they are for their chosen career with any national norms and rarely assessed as alumni for success or failure.
The White House is open to hearing these concerns. In fact a special email account was created for anyone to voice their opinions online at firstname.lastname@example.org. These emails can be read here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1001999-ed-dept-feedback-on-ratings-system.html
This brings us to the most disturbing point of this document–there is not even a bill yet. A committee has been formed to discuss the writing of a bill that at this point is still in the “scribbles on sticky notes” phase but it has already been deemed the apocalypse of education in America. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has stated several times that the system has not begun being developed and will not be in a first draft till the end of 2014 at the earliest. Regardless, Time magazine has already written a report by Haley Edwards stating that the purposed system would harm most small universities. The political opposition this initiative has created in academia, congress, and the US has been intense for a bill that has not even had ink put to paper yet.
Giving so much attention to a “possibly might maybe someday could happen” bill shows that there is more to this topic than just politics. There is money too. Lobbyists and career administrators are pushing back against the bill but they do not know what is actually in the bill. This could be interpreted as being more concerned about their careers than their students. That coupled with the problem that President Obama has endorsed the bill means that even those who might have at least not blocked the bill are now (for purely political reasons) trying to stop it. Which is why it makes sense that there is so much noise about a “possibly might maybe someday could happen” bill from the White House.
In the modern era, the customer is not only “always” right but they are better informed. One-hundred years ago an individual would have needed to visit a campus, known an alumni, or have been recruited by someone who knew the school. Otherwise, students would have likely only attended universities near their home or work. Today a student can find listings for schools on the other side of the planet. They can find students and alumni who attended the university, research their outcomes, and take tours of campus all from their living room over the internet.
Consumers today communicate frequently. They discuss, rate, and review products constantly. Consider buying a book on Amazon. Do you read reviews before you buy? Do you trust those reviews? Do you consider some expensive books to be too risky?
Students are preparing to spend thousands of dollars and years of their lives at an institution in hopes that the education they receive will be worth the gamble. If they compare notes with one another what will they say about their college? Likely students will trust these reviews from one another. Will they consider the expense worth the risk to go to college?
If this rating system does not pass then something will replace it. Where there is a need in a market there is a solution. If the government fulfils that need then there will likely be a fair amount of nonpartisan third party control over the system. If the general populace fulfills that need instead will likely be based off of customer reviews (without a background check or oversight controls). A system like this will not only be risky for every institution but only favor the largest and best advertised universities.
To put this in perspective, detractors of the bill fear that it would possibly harm small institutions by favoring large institutions. If instead the market forces the public sector to create a similar service it would only favor the largest institutions with no oversight.
The supposed bill sounds like it would be nothing more than one more report to complete and not the end of the world or certain death of all academic life on this planet as we know it. This program will give public academia oversight. In order for universities to stay relevant to an informed information society, colleges must have this oversight. This is what higher education needs but not what higher education wants. It is time for universities in America to catch up with Americans going to universities.
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Edwards, Haley S. “Should U.S. Colleges Be Graded by the Government?” Time. Time, 17 Apr. 2014. http://time.com/66259/obamas-college-rankings-raise-campus-backlash/
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