College ratings plan not the answer

Do engineers matter more than the science teachers who fired their imaginations? Are accounting majors more valuable to our society than someone studying theology? Should a university receive less financial aid because their students choose humanitarian service instead of high paying jobs? How can these incomparables be measured – and should we try?  The Obama administration raises these important questions with its Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) for colleges and universities. In December, the Administration unveiled its proposed framework, but many questions remain.

We, a Republican from Virginia and a Democrat from Massachusetts, have been skeptical of these efforts since they were first announced more than a year ago. We’ve heard concerns from many in the higher education community. Last summer, in response to these concerns, we introduced a resolution, H. Res 614, expressing support for the quality, value and diversity of our nation’s higher education institutions and strong disagreement with the Administration’s plans to implement a college ratings system.

ADVERTISEMENT
Now that the Department of Education has released its draft framework for rating post-secondary education, we are renewing efforts to build support for our resolution, introducing it in the 114th Congress as H. Res 26.

The criteria that federal education officials would use to create a ratings system – “access, affordability and outcomes” – illustrate the problems they will face. All of these benchmarks are certainly important considerations, but there will be enormous and unavoidable difficulties in comparing institutions based on these criteria. Perhaps more importantly, where are the benchmarks that consider an individual’s personal determinations of value? One size certainly will not fit all.

An Ivy League university cannot be compared with a small rural college on the basis of alumni income. Nor should one compare completion rates for a selective private college with a large state university that admits, and in some cases may be required to admit, many local high school graduates with widely varying levels of academic preparation. Unless the criteria are developed in a way that accurately accounts for the academic diversity of America’s colleges, the data will be misleading and ineffective.

Moreover, and even more troubling, earned income should be no measure of the contributions that individuals make to society. This will easily incentivize colleges and universities to encourage students to choose majors such as pre-med or computer science over social work and education.  A perfect example of how this rating could negatively impact a university can be found in President Obama himself. He chose to work as a community organizer after graduating from Columbia, a position for which he would have been modestly compensated. His lower income could have negatively impacted Columbia’s rating, if such a rating system existed in 1983. Surely we would not value anyone’s work solely based on their salary. We do not want federal policy to discourage public service.

Another concerning aspect of the proposal is the linking of ratings to eligibility for financial aid. Schools with a mission to serve low-income or first-generation college students may, for reasons quite apart from the excellence of their teaching, show lower rates of completion and lower alumni earnings. These schools, however, provide crucial opportunities for many young people. If the financial aid available to them were limited by poor ratings, their essential mission would be jeopardized.   Higher education would become unattainable for many underserved students.

Our nation boasts a rich history of student-choice in higher education. For some individuals, a city school is preferred over a rural school, for others extracurricular offerings such as music or sports may be important. The Department of Education in its own proposed framework does not claim “at this time” to have “metrics” for those aspects of education they admit are “intangible.” If a characteristic is intangible it is by definition abstract and impossible to quantify.  No one can place an arbitrary value on an individual’s experience at an institution, tie federal funding to that value, and expect to have accomplished some measure of accountability.

Everyone agrees we must address issues of college affordability and student debt. We agree that taxpayer dollars should be spent responsibly and effectively.  We also agree that prospective students should have data available to help them make informed decisions and provide as much objective information as possible towards that end. Federally rating our colleges and universities is not the way to do this. Such a divisive and subjective ratings system, with too many unintended consequences, will threaten the special characteristics and diversity that make our postsecondary system the best in the world today.

We stand ready to work with those interested in protecting that diversity while ensuring that taxpayer dollars are wisely spent and anyone who wishes to go to college has the opportunity to do so.

Goodlatte has represented Virginia’s 6th Congressional District since 1993. He is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and also sits on the Agriculture Committee. Capuano has represented congressional districts in Massachusetts’ Boston area since 1999. He sits on the Ethics; the Financial Services; and the Transportation committees.