The plan just released for rating colleges and universities is a concept that higher education should welcome as a first step toward developing more-comprehensive ways to measure colleges’ value. The U.S. Department of Education’s Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS), a continuation of the existing College Scorecard, will be complex for many reasons, including the diversity of our higher-education institutions and our well-documented limitations on data. But we should start by considering ways to make PIRS more effective, rather than immediately devaluing it and viewing it with suspicion and disapproval.
Today there is a wide discrepancy between student-based federal spending on higher education (about $170-billion) and state support ($74-billion). And there are no straightforward reporting mechanisms to determine which college or university best fits a particular student’s needs. It is not only a right of the federal government but an obligation to ensure that taxpayer dollars support a system that provides real value and benefits to those who invest in it.
The U.S. News & World Report rankings measure few, if any, metrics of a college’s actual value. In fact, those pursuing college degrees in the United States do not have a single, clear, consistent source of information allowing them to differentiate between high-quality programs and those of questionable value. Individuals have collectively wasted a lot of time and money in the quest for a better life for themselves and their families, only to emerge with degree in hand but jobless and saddled with a lifetime of debt.
Studies show that those with college degrees are more likely to volunteer, be involved in their communities, and give charitably, and less likely to have chronic health problems such as obesity and diabetes. But those benefits come to fruition only when higher education does its job and actually increases students’ knowledge and marketability. Right now, American students and their families are, for the most part, left to determine an institution’s value through the misconception that paying higher tuition somehow results in better educational outcomes. That way of thinking has led us to today’s ballooning student debt and skyrocketing tuition.
At least 50 institutions now top $60,000-a-year in tuition, and more than 150 charge more than $50,000. Meanwhile, census data put the U.S. annual median household income at $51,000. That means many universities are charging more than the typical household earns in a year for two semesters of an education that doesn’t necessarily lead to a secure career or a decent salary. Is it any wonder we’re facing a student-debt crisis?
As PIRS conversations continue, most private colleges and universities are resisting additional federal-ratings oversight, though still advocating for a continued “no strings attached” funding approach. Many public colleges and universities have accepted the fact that more federal oversight may be needed, yet struggle to understand how PIRS can provide the necessary reforms. A federal ratings system is the first step in providing consumers, students, parents, and taxpayers with evidence that their investments are producing the kind of results that will build our local, state, and national economies.
Before the development of the College Scorecard and the new PIRS framework, many colleges and universities made important cost-based and outcome-based data nearly impossible to track down, requiring a slew of federal interventions. Institutional data like those provided through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (Ipeds), as well as student-loan indebtedness, default rates, and net tuition are all metrics that required federal law before most colleges and universities agreed to report them and thus become more transparent to students, families, and policy makers.
Without adequate information, markets fail. Those of us in college leadership who agree that change is necessary to better serve our students and to maintain the sustainability of federal direct student aid must carry these concepts forward. If we do nothing, we fail the students we promised to serve, and we effectively surrender ourselves to a weak economy, limited job market, and a public that is suspicious of higher education because of our own unwillingness to be transparent.
A federal ratings system is long overdue. Let’s hope this plan helps our vast higher-education marketplace function better for the benefit of students, parents, and taxpayers.
F. King Alexander is president and chancellor of Louisiana State University.