Last August, the Obama administration floated the idea of a federal college rating system. The basic idea would be to reward colleges that score well by allowing students who enroll in them to receive larger Pell grants. Conversely, colleges scoring poorly would be eligible only for smaller Pell grants.
The concept was to judge colleges based on how much value they seem to provide, both for students and taxpayers. Metrics of the plan would include such outcomes as graduation rates, the earnings of graduates, measures of affordability, and access for lower-income students. The goal would be to create incentives for colleges to improve their ratings, thereby lowering the cost of college while increasing its value.
Even liberals don’t like that plan.
One skeptic is Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. At a hearing before his Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he observed a crucial flaw in the ratings idea, namely that colleges are not monolithic, but instead have a variety of programs, some good, some poor.
What if a school has some strong programs that are weighed down by a host of weak ones? That possibility was something, Harkin said, “I had not thought about before.”
Good point. If we rate entire colleges and penalize those that do poorly overall because of low graduation rates and low earnings, isn’t that unfair and harmful to students who are pursuing one of the majors (or perhaps the only one) where most of the students are motivated, learn useful skills, graduate, and find good jobs?
Bravo to Harkin for breaking out of the standard liberal mode of thinking in terms of aggregates and instead looking at the more complex reality.
By far the most intriguing criticism of the plan came from Vinton Thompson, president of Metropolitan College of New York.
Writing in Diverse Issues in Education, Thompson argued that the rating scheme would have terrible effects on many small colleges that largely serve minority populations. He calls it “perhaps the worst idea ever put forward for higher education by a sitting president.”
Strong words indeed, but he backs them up with an historical parallel.
Thompson compares the proposed Obama system with the Flexner Report of 1910, which evaluated medical schools operating in the United States.
Abraham Flexner (who had no medical training himself) was commissioned in 1908 by the Carnegie Foundation to assess medical education in the U.S.
Flexner showed that quite a few of the medical schools at the turn of that century were rather shabby, especially those offering medical education to blacks, women, and working-class people. His core belief was that the nation would be better off with fewer medical schools and fewer doctors, but those doctors we had should undergo more lengthy training than was given at many institutions.
The elitists who ran the American Medical Association used the report to pressure state licensing agencies to eliminate “substandard” schools. The scythe of Flexner cut down the number of medical schools and enrollments dramatically by 1920.
High standards are fine, but there is an inevitable trade-off when we insist that only institutions able to meet them will be permitted. Schools that provided some useful training, even if not ideal, were better than nothing for students who could not afford the “good” schools and couldn’t get into them.
Thompson worries that the rating system Obama has proposed will have the same sort of impact on low-budget colleges offering opportunities to poorer, academically marginal students that the Flexner Report had on lower-tier medical schools.
George Leef is director of research with the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.