This Monday, the Editorial Board conditionally endorsed the White House’s college ranking system and its plan to award Pell Grants based on these rankings. Though I appreciate the desire for accountability in higher education, a one-size-fits all college ranking system directly tied to financial awards to the school is simply the wrong approach. The plan not only distorts the choices students make between schools and schools make in educating students, it fundamentally devalues college education by treating it as a mundane commodity and ignores the causes of poor student performance even as it claims to address the symptoms.
It is of course important to ensure that students (and their grantor, the federal government) are not being defrauded by woefully inadequate schools. Recently a number of for-profit colleges came under fire for aggressively recruiting low-income students, taking the money they brought in through Pell Grants, then leaving them adrift after graduation. This blatant exploitation of the system called for increased vigilance and accountability, and the federal government responded appropriately, disciplining the schools and their accrediting institution. But such exploitation of the Pell Grant program is not the target of Obama’s rankings. Rather, the ranking system would foster competition among even the best-ranked schools. This would supposedly encourage schools to provide a superb education — but how can we define “superb” with a mere list of metrics?
The simple fact is, no ranking system can adequately measure the complex myriad of characteristics which make an education valuable to the student. Current, private, college ranking systems from Forbesand U.S. News and World Report, among others, are already problematic; they encourage schools to fit their narrow definition of good, and colleges have been known to act improperly to inflate their rankings. And with these rankings, the incentives are all indirect – how much more distorted will rankings be when they are directly tied to federal moneys? No matter which metrics are chosen, schools will immediately feel pressure to focus on these narrow aspects of their educational experiences, tying their hands in efforts to innovate education just as such efforts are becoming critical. Educators and administrators recognize this, and are resistant to the plan because of it. Said Jon A. Story, senior associate dean of Purdue’s graduate school quoted in the Purdue Exponent on Monday: “The system of university ranking that does not acknowledge the full scope of what we really do is misleading.”
And how does the administration propose to rank the outcomes of an undergraduate degree? Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lists “graduation and transfer rates, alumni satisfaction surveys, graduate earnings and the advanced degrees of college graduates” as possibilities. While these are, individually, telling statistics about a given school, the idea that they could, taken together, put a comprehensive number on the value of a college degree is preposterous. The emphasis on graduate earnings is disturbing – how much more do we need to incentivize schools to push I-Banking and consulting? But worse is what the list lacks — any measure of critical thinking skills gained through an education. A 2011 studyfound that 45 percent of students showed no gain in cognitive skills after two years of college. The American Association of Colleges and Universities found in a surveythis spring that nearly all employers found critical thinking and creative problem-solving more important than a student’s undergraduate major, but employability is only the tip of the iceberg. The same skills employers listed as important — “ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning” — are critical to a dynamic democracy and culture. While advanced degrees and postgraduate earnings provide an indirect measure of such skills, no metric can measure the impact that a school has on a student’s psyche.
Perhaps a test of cognitive skills would be an appropriate metric to include in the government’s rankings? Unfortunately, as we have seen time and again in public schooling, such high-stakes testing distorts education even more than simply taking metrics. High-stakes testing in primary and secondary school and this new attempt to rate post-secondary institutions are both emblematic of a misguided, one-size-fits-all approach to education. Since different students have different needs, the government would be ill-served to pressure them into institutions where their Pell Grants were worth more, merely because the school fits an arbitrary metric.
The administration’s plan tries to solve two problems — Pell Grant waste and ineffective education — with one “magic bullet” which simply won’t do. Too often low-income and first-generation college students fail to attend top-notch schools not because they are unqualified but because they aren’t aware they are qualified because they lack the guidance available to luckier students. If the government wants to make sure Pell Grant monies are spent on superb educations, it should work with excellent colleges, and with Pell Grant students before they graduate high school, to ensure that these students are at a school which will educate and challenge them. Here the data Obama proposes collecting will be helpful to students in their search — it is only when paired with supposedly comprehensive ratings that it becomes dangerous. The quality of college education as a whole is a separate issue, and one that should be addressed through the concerted efforts of educators and the encouragement and support of the federal government, rather than the strictly monetary carrots and sticks that the administration proposes.
Bennett McIntosh is a sophomore from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached email@example.com.