College-Rating Systems: One Size Cannot Fit All

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

February 24, 2014

If you have followed the Obama administration’s new higher-education rating system, you’ve read that its stated purpose is to "measure college performance … so students and families have the information to select schools that provide the best value." In the measures, "value" is measured with statistics that are available to the federal government.

The great number of colleges in the United States represent all kinds of values and approaches: small liberal-arts colleges, large research universities, religious and secular, those that offer professional tracks, those that promote broad and interdisciplinary study, colleges with general studies and other requirements, colleges where students select their own courses, institutions that offer associate degrees, and those that award Ph.D.’s. There is no "one size fits all" measurement for the diversity and range of institutions.

Private, independent colleges like my own, Marlboro College, are not afraid of information—or, to use the term of the day, "transparency." We want students and families to know how much we cost, how much financial aid we offer, how many students graduate, how many go on to careers or further study. But we want to be measured accurately and according to the values we uphold.

Let’s look at graduation rates first. The data available to the U.S. Department of Education measure the graduation rates of first-time, full-time students: in other words, those who attend an institution as freshmen and graduate four, five, or six years later. What about the community-college students who transfer into four-year colleges after a year of study? They don’t count. What about students who discover their vocations at one place and finish at another? They don’t count, either for the college where they start or the one where they gain their degree. The graduation rates will be based on flawed data.

Absent in the rating system are measures of what colleges actually teach and how well they do it: how they demonstrate the values of intellectual and creative development—the critical thinking, problem solving, clear writing and expression, ability to understand cultural and historical context, and teamwork that will serve students well in a changing society and economy.

Recently, I heard Jamienne Studley, the new deputy under secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, speak at an education summit in Boston. She underscored the administration’s determination to publish a 2015 version of the rating system, which will be linked to awarding federal financial aid to "high-performance institutions." If you’re like me, you’ll see flashing red lights.

Studley, who served as deputy general counsel in the department during the Clinton administration and later as president of Skidmore College, explained that the federal investment in student aid—$150-billion—is based on enrollment, not outcomes. Seeking to influence results, the Department of Education is creating a system to compare colleges instead on the bases of affordability and access, the number and success of Pell Grant students, and outcomes—defined as transfer rates, graduation rates, percentages continuing toward advanced degrees, and salaries.

Studley, who understands the learning objectives of the liberal arts, explained that those factors "will be refined with you." She also speculated that the system may have a "green, yellow, and red" color coding. I couldn’t help recalling how well that worked out for the Department of Homeland Security.

Let’s examine another aspect of the ratings: salary after graduation. Does this mean that engineering schools, which report some of the highest starting salaries for their graduates, will get the most federal financial aid? Won’t salary ratings distort the "value" of a college in terms of its own preferred outcomes and public-policy objectives? As one conference participant pointed out, the country needs more qualified early-childhood educators and teachers, and if a college prepares and graduates them, the low salaries earned by people in those professions will penalize the institution. It could also discourage the college from accepting more Pell Grant students.

What about colleges whose graduates go into AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, or Teach for America? Will teachers’ colleges gain red lights, while engineering schools get green lights? Let’s hope that the federal government does not dumb down the system purporting to give the public more information about college choice.

Then there’s the story of a 2009 Marlboro College alumna who concentrated in political science and dance, moved to New York City, where she worked in a restaurant while presenting her own choreography in various venues, and starred in an indie film for which she is receiving the Los Angeles Movie Award for best actress. She now works full time as an arts administrator for the Vermont Performance Lab. This kind of achievement will not be measured by the new College Scorecard.

Thinking about Marlboro graduates, 75 percent of whom go on to graduate school or professional studies, raised other questions for me. What about those who are working to pay off loans or save for advanced studies before settling into a career? What about the extraordinary number of teachers, artists, and social-service workers whose talents are so needed by society but who are not rewarded with high salaries? Are they not to be valued?

The president’s objectives are to provide "high value at low cost" and to make colleges accountable for the federal financial aid we receive. He’s done his part by strongly supporting increases in Pell Grants to low-income students, and he rightly wants more of them to graduate. We agree. But we must be assured that the federal data are accurate. And we insist on defining our own values: developing the critical thinking, cultural understanding, and creative capacities of tomorrow’s citizens.

Ellen McCulloch-Lovell is president of Marlboro College.