Over-Rated: Why the College Scorecard System Could Hurt You and Your School

If you are reading this article, you are probably fully aware of the fact that college is expensive. It’s incredibly, insanely, absurdly expensive. And it’s getting worse, not better. Rising tuition, coupled with plummeting degree value, is such a pervasive issue that President Obama recently introduced a program called “College Scorecard” to combat it as part of his second-term higher education agenda.

At first, it seemed like a simple idea: assess the “value” of American colleges and assign them a rating of “excellent”, “good”, “fair”, or “poor”, then ask Congress to tie federal financial aid (e.g. Pell Grants) to the ratings. The result? Colleges that offer the best education to the widest range of students for the lowest price are rewarded, and other schools are incentivized to get their acts together.

“It’s like rating a blender… This is not so hard to get your mind around,” Jammiene Studley, a deputy undersecretary at the US Department of Education, said in the New York Times.  Few would argue the fact that students deserve to know the value of their education. Unfortunately, despite Ms. Studley’s claims, rating a higher ed institution is nothing like rating a kitchen appliance. In fact, attaching federal aid to a ranking system that is viewed by many experts as hopelessly flawed could have disastrous results for the very students the program is intended to help.

The first problem facing the proposed program is lack of good information. Evaluators would gather their data from the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which, according to a study by the American Council on Education, contains misleading and incomplete information. For example the system classifies all transfer students as dropouts, whether or not they eventually complete their degree at a different institution. A comprehensive overhaul of the IEPDS system would be necessary to give evaluators the tools they need even to begin the process of rating colleges. The Obama administration has not indicated that any such overhaul will take place.

Even if evaluators had all of the information they needed, rating a school is still a far cry from rating a blender or any type of mass produced consumer good. According to a policy paper by the American Enterprise Institute, access, affordability, and outcome, the three factors that would be used in the College Scorecard program, tend to affect each other negatively. For example, if a college increases its accessibility, fewer students tend to graduate. Lowering costs, on the other hand, often comes at the expense of educational quality. In both cases, the school’s “outcomes” evaluation suffers.

Experts call this phenomenon the “iron triangle”, and it affects practically every school in the world. In a simulation of the rating program, the American Enterprise Institute found that, out of over 7,000 American colleges, a mere 19 performed reasonably well on all three measurements. The dysfunctional relationship between access, affordability, and outcome complicates the evaluation process, raising questions of how each category should be weighted, whether minimum standards apply to each category, and how schools will adapt when financial aid is tied to specific performance measures.

Compounding the problem, many schools’ ratings could suffer because of state-level programs that are entirely beyond their control. Some states heavily subsidize higher education, leading to lower tuition rates, while others do not. Under the proposal, similar institutions in all states would be compared to each other. As a result, schools operating in states that provide high levels of funding for postsecondary education would have an artificially high measure of affordability when compared with colleges in other states.  Schools in states that provide less education funding would see their ratings drop. The unfortunate result would be a downward spiral in which financially disadvantaged schools are punished financially for their lack of affordability, which then causes them to become even less affordable, leading to even greater financial aid cuts…and the vicious cycle continues.

The Obama administration’s desire to ensure the fruitful use of federal dollars by colleges is commendable, but the hurdles facing it are clear. The debate over the College Scorecard program also raises a larger question: Is it the government’s place to determine what students should value in an educational institution? Furthermore, should the government financially discourage students and schools that do not share its values?

I would argue that the diversity of both personal and institutional values within the sphere of education defy oversimplification and the conformity necessitated by a government ratings  program like the one proposed.

After all, paying off student loan debt quickly is important, yet defining “value” purely as a dollar sign minimizes the vocations of teachers, nurses, and humanitarian workers, who, though they often take longer to pay off their loans, play a vital role in shaping and maintaining our society. Many colleges specialize in these sorts of fields. That’s a good thing, not just for their students, but also for the nation. Students pursuing service-oriented careers deserve investment, development, and encouragement, not smaller Pell grants.

As daunting as the challenges facing American students are, it is important to take a step back and recognize that not every problem finds its solution in politics. Should schools make a concentrated effort to provide quality education, tailored to the needs and aspirations of individual students? Absolutely. Should students and their families make wise financial decisions when determining where students will attend school? Of course they should. Does government have a legitimate and important role concerning questions of access? Indeed. But is government responsible for supervising every step in the college-choice process? Not necessarily.

Colleges are not blenders. They are vibrant, complex, diverse spaces for exploration and intellectual curiosity. That’s why using a simplistic rating system to determine the “value” of a school is, to say the least, concerning.  Diversity is what makes the American university system so special, and it must be allowed to flourish.

-Mackenzie Harmon is a student at Covenant College majoring in international studies. She is currently a summer intern at the Center for Public Justice.