Should Colleges Be Held Accountable for the Success of Students?

It’s been a year since the White House announced its plan for a new college rating system and most college presidents still don’t love it. The idea of being held accountable for the success of students doesn’t sit well with many administrators. Yet, with student debt mounting, full-time professors dwindling, and the cost of tuition skyrocketing, colleges may have to get comfortable with showing they’re worth it.

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President Obama and his advisers want schools to prove they’re worthy of the $150 billion in federal loans and grants they receive each year. The college rating system his administration is developing would compare schools on graduation rates, student debt, and graduate earnings.

As part of the plan, President Obama will seek Congressional approval to link federal aid to a school’s performance in those areas. Schools that rate higher would be able to offer more student aid than schools with lower ratings. In an interview with The New York Times, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, Cecilia Muñoz, described the president’s intent.

“He is not interested in driving anybody out of business, unless they are poorly serving the American people,” Muñoz says.

According to The New York Times, the cost of attending both public and private colleges continues to “significantly outpace earnings growth in the United States.” The newspaper cited Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY as one of the most expensive schools in the nation. Tuition, room, and board at the school will be close to $65,000 in the next academic year.

Critics do not see the rating system as a reliable indicator of a college’s value and have concerns about possible unintended consequences. Some college presidents worry the plan may lead to schools discriminating against low-income and minority students because they’re more likely to drop out and more likely to earn less. Along the same lines is the concern that the plan would punish liberal arts colleges whose students go into professions like social work and teaching where earnings are generally lower.

Accuracy and validity of the data that would be used in the rating system also concerns some college presidents since colleges currently use a variety of different methods to collect data on graduate earnings nor can they require graduates to provide them with the information.

“I find this initiative uncharacteristically clueless,” Charles L. Flynn Jr., president of the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx, tells the Times.

The White House has been holding open forums since last year’s announcement to gather ideas, criticisms, and feedback and is currently developing a preliminary version of the rating system which will be unveiled by the end of the year. Their goal is to have the rating system in place before the start of the 2015-2016 school year.

Even though many college administrators are not in favor of a federal college rating system, there are some college presidents who are speaking out in support of the concept. When the plan was announced last year, F. King Alexander, president and chancellor of Louisiana State University told the Chronicle of Higher Education it was “about time” the federal government linked some student aid to outcomes.

“If we don’t do anything, we won’t have Pell Grants anymore because we give them to anybody and everybody, whether they’re good or bad,” says Alexander.

While the White House certainly has its work cut out for it in creating a fair and impartial rating system that doesn’t backfire, a system of checks and balances may be exactly what’s required at a time when student debt, college tuition, and college president pay are keeping pace toward unsustainable levels.

College students and prospective applicants can research a college’s return on investment using the PayScale College ROI Report which ranks colleges and universities based on total cost and alumni earnings.

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Should the federal government rate colleges and hold them accountable for the success of their students? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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