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Ratings roulette: Proposed federal system threatens U.S. higher education

Ed L. Schrader is president of Brenau University and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

In this essay, he explains why he opposes a proposed federal rating system for colleges and universities.

By Ed L. Schrader

An eerie quiet in recent weeks seems to have enveloped the proposal – floated by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration – to saddle colleges and universities with an unworkable federal college ratings system.

This new system presumably addresses the needs of the higher education “consumer” by assigning and publishing grades of two- and four-year institutions based on access, affordability and outcomes.

In the minds of its creators, the program grants the federal government an arsenal of sticks and carrots for prodding schools to accomplish the higher education Holy Grail trifecta: 1. greater accessibility for at-risk students, 2. tamping down tuition costs, 3. better outcomes. The success measurements are primarily in terms of reduced dropout rates and increased graduates’ incomes.

All of that sounds great. However, if implemented, the program with its one-size-fits-all measurement could seal the fates of many smaller schools that deliver invaluable services to their students and communities.

My concern now is the silence surrounding this issue. We in the higher education community have been debating this federal government ratings proposal among ourselves and in public for more than a year now. Procedurally, the administration says it is still committed to implementing the program in the next fiscal year, which means it needs to begin right away, but another development could overshadow the implementation.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, is now pushing forward with a comprehensive measure to overhaul the way the federal government handles all aspects of higher education, including the ratings system as a tiny footnote.

My concern is that this ratings system regulation will quietly slip under the radar or gain traction in Alexander’s bill in the behind-the-scenes political horse-trading that always seems to saddle well-intentioned ideas with awful unintended consequences.

I do not object in theory. We in higher education strive to provide outstanding learning and growing environments at an affordable cost as students develop into community leaders equipped with skills to become accomplished professionals. Clearly, there are areas within this endeavor that warrant federal government leadership – including overseeing and maintaining the world’s greatest higher education system and finding more ways to improve the quality and availability of higher education.

This wrong-headed proposed ratings system effort is particularly tone deaf when it comes to the contexts and settings in which many colleges and universities serve. Schools in traditionally underserved higher education areas often draw students who are first generation, minority and low income. That group has a 90 percent dropout rate, compared with a 50 percent for all students who enroll.

Many schools offer education access to a portion of this high-risk demographic. A one-size-fits-all ratings system certainly will place these schools at a disadvantage, particularly as future federal dollars switch to elite, already well-funded institutions with higher graduation rates.

My institution, Brenau University, maintains its 137-year-old undergraduate Women’s College in a region that lags behind the rest of the nation in equal opportunities for women. The university also offers coeducational undergraduate and graduate opportunities for a diverse student population in areas underserved by higher education. The latter group primarily comprises nontraditional students who may have “day jobs” while squeezing in pursuit of degrees around busy family and work schedules.

We have gone to great lengths to ensure student success, but it is not easy or cheap. How can one rigid cookie-cutter measurement assess how well each component of our program succeeds?

Likewise, religiously affiliated universities and colleges as well as historically black schools also offer unique contexts and settings that have served many students and communities well for generations. Many of these schools have a tough balancing act between providing access to unfettered academic inquiry while honoring the faith and traditions that bore them.

A one-size-fits-all ratings system can never reflect adequately the unique missions, important roles and historical challenges faced by hundreds of these schools as they successfully navigate tensions, honor traditions and provide quality education.

The great news is that programs and resources already exist to hold colleges and universities accountable and help guide students as they select the institution that best suits their needs and career aspirations. The U.S. Department of Education currently recognizes six regional accrediting bodies, one of which is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Each accreditor evaluates the vast majority of public, not-for-profit and for-profit private educational institutions in its region. They regularly produce reports on accreditation actions, which include reaffirmations, sanctions of member schools for impropriety, and improvement plans for those in danger of falling below acceptable standards.

These bodies technically already rate colleges and universities on all the criteria addressed by the Duncan-Obama proposal and they do so within the context of the unique nature of each institution. The Department of Education certainly could address any access or quality concerns through closer collaboration with these organizations.

As a university president, I can assure you that this system serves the higher education community and its students well. Accrediting bodies conduct regularly scheduled and intense reviews of each institution – touching all aspects of its academic and administrative operations – with cadres of dispassionate professionals from other unrelated institutions who are experts in their respective fields.

Throughout my career in higher education, I have participated in these studies as both a reviewer and a “reviewee.” To illustrate the thorough vetting that occurs, Brenau just completed months-long reviews by both the accrediting body and the Florida Department of Education to authorize our operations of a campus in Jacksonville. We initially will cultivate three graduate and undergraduate degree programs there that we have offered – with full accreditation – for decades on other campuses. Still, we could not begin to enroll students until the “ratings” were completed.

The beauty of the U.S. higher education culture is that one size does not fit all and that no set of uniform metrics does not define the American college experience. One’s ability to choose from a spectrum of college personalities and myriad courses of study that meet an individual’s specific needs form that rich tapestry of American higher education that the rest of the world so envies.

If the federal government wants to see this coveted advantage continue and expand, it should simply step aside from this misguided ratings effort where it has no expertise or resources. It should focus instead on areas of higher education where its leadership and expertise will make a great system better.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.