Late last year, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced plans to develop a comprehensive rating system of America’s universities and colleges. Largely forgotten in the midst of the Obamacare rollout, Veterans Affairs scandal, and other pressing concerns, the rating system was thrown back into the national spotlight last week with a front-page article in The New York Times. The focus of the piece: college presidents’ extreme opposition to the new rating system.
Though terms remain vague, the rating system will attempt to measure schools on graduation rates, how much debt students accrue and how much money students earn upon graduating. Schools will not be rated numerically or in a traditional ranking, like the U.S. News and World Report, but in categories of “Excellent,”“Good,”“Fair”and “Poor.”The goal of the ratings is to provide families and students with information to determine which schools present the best value and in turn hold these institutions, which receive $150 billion in government money annually, accountable. The ratings will also determine how much money Congress allocates to a given institution, with schools providing a better value receiving more allocations. School officials fear that this system, no matter how noble in its intention, is oversimplifying the nuanced environment of higher education and will ultimately hurt schools that serve underrepresented and low-income populations.
From a millennial perspective, the rating system is appealing. Between 2003 and 2013 college costs grew by nearly 80 percent and the average student now graduates somewhere between $26,000 and $29,000 (depending on class year) in debt. A system that rates schools on these figures and then uses these ratings as the basis to allocate government funds may create a new focus on affordability and debt reduction. Yet, what seems promising on a surface level may prove problematic in deeper analyses.
Much like the U.S. News and World Report and Forbes rankings that have dominated the politics of higher-education in recent years, this rating system attempts to place a market ideology on education, where schools are treated like consumer products. One DOE official even went as far to claim it was “like rating a blender.”With graduation rates, debt and job out-look as the main factors determining college value, the rating system is essentially measuring how quickly and cheaply institutions can produce workers. Though these measures may prove useful especially in today’s high-cost, high-debt climate, they run the risk of characterizing higher-education solely in terms of its market performance, and not in its quality of instructors, engaged student life, intellectual climate, campus culture or the many other factors that make American schools unique and significant.
Even worse, there is nothing to suggest this rating system will make a difference. What sounds promising, especially in the bleak landscape of millennial graduate life, may prove useless in the face of private loan companies, a stalwart economy, lack of entry-level jobs, powerful and well-endowed universities and the scores of other tangled issues that characterize American higher-education in the modern era.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of both the federal government and institutions, to work together to enact tangible change in higher education. The rating system may be a start, but only a weak one at best.
Maura Hallisey is a 2013 graduate of Connecticut College where she studied Film Studies, Sociology, and Public Policy, with a concentration of gender in the media. She currently works at a history museum in Hartford, CT and is a fanatic of running, biking and sharks.