By: Arthur Keiser
Recently, President Obama visited a Miami-Dade high school and discussed his higher education initiatives. In many ways, his speech echoed his State of the Union address in which he promised to curb the rising costs of a college education, as well as provide students with greater access to information. True to his word, President Obama recently acted on the latter of the two by releasing a ‘College Scorecard,’ an online tool aimed at giving prospective college students a better sense of the costs and benefits of attending specific colleges.
The president deserves to be lauded for taking the time to make much-needed reforms to improve our higher education system and establish transparency in the college selection process. Unfortunately, while the president’s scorecard is admirable in its ambition, it is also deeply flawed in its design.
To start with the good, the administration’s college scorecard provides a myriad of data points in a centralized location. According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “The interactive College Scorecard gives students and families five key pieces of data about a college: costs, graduation rate, loan default rate, average amount borrowed, and employment.” Some of these measures, especially those pertinent to costs and graduation rates, will go a long way toward establishing a more fundamentally transparent system. As a country, we should strive to give our students all the relevant information in the college selection process, so that they can make informed decisions about their future.
That being said, the administration needs to assimilate suggestions and criticisms from education experts and consider entirely retooling the College Scorecard. The most noticeable flaw is inconsistencies in the data presented by the scorecard. For many schools, the data is not always representative or accurate, in some cases omitting transfer students and other important information. In fact, on a number of occasions the scorecard relies on data that is several years old.
This problem has been compounded by the fact that the information presented by the scorecard isn’t always relevant to a student. The New York Times has reported “the information is presented as averages and medians that might have little relevance to individual families. The scorecard does connect to each institution’s net price calculator, which allows individualized cost estimates, but it does not provide side-by-side comparisons of multiple schools, as other government sites do.”
In addition, there are many indications that the scorecard places too much emphasis on specific outcomes, specifically graduate “average earnings.” This measurement serves as a poor barometer because it drastically undervalues a liberal education, while placing a higher emphasis on those that will immediately generate a sizable salary upon graduation. Harvard President Drew Faust says it best when he writes, “The focus in federal policy making and rhetoric on earnings data as the indicator of the value of higher education will further the growing perception that a college degree should be simply a ticket to a first job, rather than a passport to a lifetime of citizenship, opportunity, growth and change.”
The president’s college scorecard is very similar to the U.S. News & World Report rankings in that they have both come under enormous scrutiny by the academic community because it can discourage students from following their dreams by placing an enormous pressure on them to attend a nationally-ranked school. It is important to remember that our society needs all types of students, from a variety of walks of life, and rankings, like the president’s scorecard, don’t always take this into account. Under the president’s scorecard, a university’s ratings could suffer just because it has a civic-minded student body that elects to teach or join the Peace Corps. Both of these professions might not yield a high return on investment from a salary perspective, but are invaluable to our society and might provide greater happiness to our students.
President Obama’s College Scorecard offers promise, as it has the potential to hold colleges and universities accountable for their performance and costs, but its execution is lacking. Such criticism is consistent with the president’s broader higher education vision, which likewise offers promise, but has failed to meet expectations.
The president is clearly interested in reforming our education system, but that is not enough. The president needs to redouble his education efforts and put together a meaningful and comprehensive higher education plan that outlines his priorities and actually gives specific details as to how his goals will be achieved.
Arthur Keiser, Ph.D. is Chancellor of Keiser University and a Member of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, appointed by United States Speaker of the House John Boehner.