By Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D.
President of Misericordia University
Nearly two years and countless opposing viewpoints later, the federal postsecondary institutional ratings system that President Obama imagined and planned to implement later this year has been drastically curtailed.
The president's vision was honorable, as he wanted to give students, families and guidance counselors clear and objective information about colleges and universities. Unfortunately, plans for the ratings were murky at best and, at worst, detrimental to students and families with less financial resources or less preparation for college, such as first-generation students.
While I support increased transparency about what we do in higher education and how we do it, I was one of the many who wrote to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to encourage the abandonment of the ratings plan. The various components of the plan relayed to higher education administrators was too subjective and could inadvertently hurt high-performing institutions based on raw information that does not take into consideration the human elements of a college education, such as preparedness, learning disabilities and more.
In June, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) agreed, and will instead develop a "consumer-facing tool" to help in college selection. The promise appears to be that the information provided will be heavy on data and light on subjective evaluations. While the Department of Education has promised additional details in late summer, the ratings portion of the program appears to have met its well-deserved end.
The original DOE proposal seemed to have two well-intended aims: Provide consumers with metrics to aid in making a choice and improve accountability across the industry.
Fortunately, there are a number of free online resources for students and parents. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator (nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator) provides a range of information. With a few keystrokes, one can locate detailed information on price and net price after financial aid, as well as other important factors such as enrollment, retention, graduation rates, majors, veterans programs, athletics, accreditation, campus safety and more.
The DOE's College Navigator is a very strong first step in providing future students and families with objective and clear information. Other online sources, such as the University and College Accountability Network (ucan-network.org), provide a similar range of information with easy to read graphics. With online tools, one can learn the statistical and informational basics of most any college or university in minutes.
Unfortunately, it is more challenging to hold institutions of higher education accountable as you cannot simply scan over spreadsheets or websites to gain accurate pictures. The DOE wants to give all of us the ability to understand student outcomes, such as persistence rates to graduation. The challenge in using the ratings approach is that the range of institutions serving students is very large and diverse – thereby offering each college and university its own set of unique circumstances.
Many institutions, such as community colleges, specialize in providing a gateway to college that is focused on local needs and opportunities. Research institutions are typically larger, regional or national in scope, and seek to create new knowledge as a central part of the mission. Comprehensive and masters institutions, such as Misericordia, serve a range of students from new high school graduates to working adults, offering bachelors, masters, and, increasingly, doctoral degrees. Some institutions are urban, working to provide access in a way that is very different from a suburban or rural setting. Some students live at home and commute to school, some live on campus, and a growing number of students are working adults who own homes and are raising families.
Comparing outcomes through a simple numerical score – as was proposed – is in my view a nonsensical approach.
Higher education institutions currently work to ensure accountability through both internal efforts and external review, such as by our peer accreditation process. Many of our programs, such as those in business and the health sciences, pursue and receive specialized accreditation in their field. The reviews are rigorous, detailed, and provide a map to future improvement of our work. The accreditation process works well. There does not appear to be a way to reduce this process to a single number or letter that indicates accurately the accountability an institution has for its offerings and practices.
Thankfully, the DOE is now moving to shore up the information that students and families need to make an informed decision. Just as importantly, the message that accountability is a simple metric appears to be fading. Each student deserves the education that best fits their personal needs and aspirations. Working together, we can continue to provide a growing number of students a world-class educational experience.