[This article first appeared in the Orange County Register on February 10, 2015.]
In December, while hundreds of thousands of high school seniors across the country negotiated a thicket of college applications, the White House released new details about the proposed federal ratings system for American colleges and universities.
Many in the field of higher education were quick to criticize the proposal, accusing the administration of using metrics that would result in misleading information and potentially reduce access for disadvantaged students.
But while legitimate questions have been raised, the level of concern is overblown and untimely. Instead of creating unnecessary hoopla, we should be looking at the proposed framework as a launching point to learn more about ourselves as institutions, reflect on our successes as well as areas for growth (in anticipation of the metrics being linked to funding), and ultimately strengthen our capacity to help students thrive in academics and in life.
Just as educators use different metrics to grade their students, current ratings systems use different metrics to grade educational institutions on both voluntary and involuntary bases. Some rankings, including those released by U.S. News & World Report, place significant weight on subjective qualities, such as a school’s reputation, as determined by surveys of academic peers. Others emphasize freshman retention, diversity or availability of financial aid.
The Department of Education is proposing to use metrics related to institutions’ accessibility to underrepresented and low-income students, the average costs of attendance, completion rates and how students fare after graduation. While some of the proposed metrics have inherent limitations, together they contribute to an understanding of which schools excel at promoting accessibility and affordability, and those that prioritize student success during school and upon graduation.
In the rush to disparage the department’s proposal, several important points have been brushed aside.
First, the draft framework is just that: a draft. The department has invited public feedback and pledged to continue working with institutions and educational leaders to ensure that the framework fulfills its intended mission. Let’s do our part to provide that feedback in a manner that’s constructive and forward-looking.
Second, institutions will inevitably treat the federal ratings system as they do any other, which is to laud the ratings when they’re to the school’s advantage and contextualize them when they’re not. Here at Cal State Fullerton, we emphasize the rankings and ratings we’re most proud of – such as being recognized as first in California and fourth in the nation among top “Best Bang for the Buck” universities, being listed as 21st in the nation for the value of our contribution to the public good in Washington Monthly’s 2014 College Rankings, and earning the Carnegie Classification on Community Engagement – because these are among the issues that matter most to us.
Third, the data collected by the government will become available to the public, providing students and their families a more comprehensive picture of their options and opportunities for a wide range of groups to perform further analysis that will deepen our insight into the challenges and possibilities of higher education.
Finally, tying outcomes to funding – as the White House proposes to do in the future and the state of California is increasingly hinting it will do – can only encourage colleges and universities to accelerate their efforts to improve student success and narrow the achievement gap.
The $150 billion our federal government spends each year on higher education warrants scrutiny. We cannot, as institutions, advocate for increased public investment if we are not willing to be held accountable for the impact that money has on students’ ability to graduate and succeed in the job market.
My 18-year-old daughter was one of the many students navigating college applications over the winter holidays, so I know very well how complicated the decision-making process can be. It is as both a provost and a father that I welcome the proposed federal ratings system and encourage my colleagues in higher education to work with the administration to strengthen their metrics rather than fight them.
Now is not the time to be saying “yes, but”; it’s the moment to be saying “yes, and…”