Yesterday, President Obama announced his plan to make “college more affordable, tackle rising costs, and improve value for students and their families.”
But a big part of the President’s plan includes creating a college rating system—a federal scorecard—to evaluate colleges on measures such as graduation rates, the number of low-income students served (i.e., the percentage of Pell Grant recipients), graduate earnings, and affordability.
Scorecards are a seductive idea. But having the federal government issue scorecards to measure college output would be a mistake. Four problems with the President’s plan:
1. Government says what’s best. As we wrote yesterday in National Review Online, for one thing, a monopoly government scorecard would inevitably reflect what bureaucrats—rather than parents, students, and scholarly communities—determine is or is not important in education.
2. Special-interest institutions with more clout could shape the standards. Existing institutions that are comfortable within the cocoon of protectionist accreditation would lobby hard, and no doubt effectively, for output measures that define success in their own terms.
3. Standard-setters would also control college funding. Educational institutions’ lobbying becomes particularly problematic when considering the second part of President Obama’s proposal: to then tie federal student aid to the new rating system by giving larger Pell Grants and lower student loan interest rates to students who enroll in colleges that fare well on the federal scorecard.
The logical outcome is a system that has the federal government handing out subsidies based on a rating system designed by the people handing out the funding. What could possibly go wrong?
4. We already have scorecards. A competing range of private outcomes-based scorecards already exists, sponsored by such outlets as U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, ACTA, and Kiplinger’s. Each of these reflects the differing visions of quality held by different Americans, from post-graduation salary to the likelihood of a well-rounded education. A one-size-fits-all federal rating system is unnecessary and will likely trump these independent evaluators that parents and students have long trusted.
If the Obama Administration truly wants to “shake up” higher ed and bring down college costs, it would acknowledge that federal government intervention is the problem, not the solution.
Continuing to increase federal subsidies enables universities to raise tuition. Since 1982, the cost of attending college has increased 439 percent—more than four times the rate of inflation. Increases in college costs exceed increases in health care costs, which have risen more than 250 percent over the same time period. Economist Richard Vedder argues that “some of these financial aid programs have contributed mightily to the explosion in tuition and fees in modern times.”
The key in education reform is to do things that improve students’ learning. A federal college scorecard gets an F on all counts.