Debate over How to Rate College Quality!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article (subscription required) commenting on President Obama’s plan for rating the quality of colleges.  The president’s plan has gained early support from proponents of bringing more accountability to higher education, but some analysts fear that a ratings system would punish colleges for accepting students from lower-income and other backgrounds who are less likely to complete degrees than their peers.  Once in place, the program the president has proposed would give larger Pell Grants and more-affordable loans to students attending higher-rated institutions.

The Chronicle article reports on a panel discussion featuring several prominent individuals commenting on the issues associated with the president’s proposal.  The forum, titled  Higher Education’s New Caste System, was sponsored by the New America Foundation and the magazine Washington Monthly, and was billed as a conversation about a broken higher-education system that puts low-income students at a disadvantage and perpetuates racial inequality. The Chronicle article, however, commented that the theme was largely eclipsed by a decades-old debate on:  How do we best measure quality across diverse postsecondary institutions that serve students with vastly different levels of preparedness?

President Obama says his proposed ratings system, which would take effect in 2015, would ultimately measure whether colleges are giving students a good deal. The trouble is, there is precious little agreement about which metrics best answer that question.    As the article points out:

“The federal six-year graduation rate, which is often cited by policy makers as a measure of quality, is criticized among higher-education experts because it discounts significant numbers of college students. The figure does not include students who transfer into an institution from a community college, for example, or students who transfer out of an institution and eventually graduate from a different college.

Diana S. Natalicio, president of the University of Texas at El Paso and a panelist on the program, said the federal six-year graduation rate fails to capture 70 percent of her students. The measure tends to “mislead rather than inform,” she said, and yet it plays a prominent role in shaping public policy.

Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of the Lumina Foundation, said the problem was not the use of graduation rates, but rather the “obsession we have with single measures.”

The article’s concluding comment focuses squarely on a most important issue:

“Kevin Carey, director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation and guest editor of the Washington Monthly’s 2013 College Rankings, said there is a “distorted view” in the United States that excellence in higher education can be defined by how many students a college turns away. Mr. Carey, who is also a columnist for The Chronicle, said that view is harmful because it does not give colleges incentives to enroll students who face the greatest financial and preparatory challenges.”




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