Let's Not Rank Colleges

College tuition has skyrocketed in recent years as states cut back their share of college support and students bear the brunt of it. 25 years ago, tuition made up a quarter of college costs.  Today, tuition is half or more. In constant (2008) dollars, tuition at 4-year public colleges has tripled and at private colleges has more than doubled.
When I started college at a private university in 1970, my tuition was $3,000 for the year. Today, undergraduate tuition and fees at that same school are over $40,000 for entering students.  If that tuition rise merely tracked inflation over the past 43 years, tuition would be $18,000.

Many factors are driving increased college costs: investments in new buildings, pension and health care costs, non-teaching staff increases to handle additional student services and paperwork, and often generous pay for university presidents.  Taxpayer investments in public colleges have taken a major hit, particularly in recent years, leaving heavier burdens on students. Student debt now averages $27,000 for the typical college grad.

Add in the dismal records of many for-profit colleges and their increasing share of federal financial aid dollars, now absorbing 25% of Pell Grant awards though they enroll just 10% of the students.  To see the disturbing comparisons between cost, debt, expenditures and student graduation rates at for-profit vs. public and non-profit institutions, see  Publica: The For Profit Higher Education Industry by the Numbers.

So what's a nation to do?  President Obama's answer is to create a college-ranking system, factoring in tuition rates, graduation rates, student debt, earnings of graduates and the numbers of low-income students enrolled. There are of course other ranking systems already, most popularly US News and World Reports rankings that compare selectivity, graduation and retention, reputation and class sizes, among other factors. The President however, would like to take his ranking system a step further, tying federal financial aid contributions to the institution's score, a step that would require Congress' approval.

Quanitifying in the social sciences and education can be useful.  But high stakes scoring has predictably dismal consequences.  Just as colleges have jockeyed to inflate their numbers in the US News ranking system, I can foresee other impacts of the President's system.  Here are my predictions if his plan goes live:

Tuition:  If tuition is the measure, expect more and more expenses to fall under Fees.  Watch services students expect from their colleges to become paid optionals, much as bringing your luggage along when you fly has become "optional".

Graduation Rates:  Measuring graduation rates is no simple task.  How are transfer students factored in
(whether they transfer in or out)? What's the time expected for earning a degree -- 4 years? 5? 6? at any point? Do returning students who sign up for an occasional class, never intending to earn a degree, count? What about those pursuing a second Bachelor's Degree?  And if graduation rates become too critical, will we see colleges dumbing down their expectations and coursework to improve their numbers?

Student Debt:  Best ways to reduce student debt?  Admit only wealthy and foreign students.  Fortunately, the plan balances this against numbers of low-income students but the actual measures are yet to be seen.  Oregon's "Pay it Forward" proposal would reduce student debt while still taxing students' future earnings.  How is that to be counted?

Graduates' Earnings:  This is the most troubling of the measures proposed.  MIT and CalTech will fare well here, cranking out engineers who can predictably earn healthy future salaries.  But what about the Humanities, Arts and Social Science programs? Will they go the way of arts, vocational programs and electives in our high schools, as only math, science and English counted in NCLB scores?  I support STEM learning but do not believe we want to kill off Music, Political Science and Education programs.

Low-Income Students: Here the for-profit colleges will rank high as they deliberately target military veterans and other low-income students in order to attract the financial aid each can bring to their bottom line. But there's a more insidious factor at work here.  If Harvard and Stanford have few low-income students (and they do), financial aid for prospective students would be reduced according to the President's proposals.  So the Ivy Leagues become still further out of reach, reinforcing a tiered university system where certain colleges are accessible to the poor and others closed to them.

I appreciate the problem the President is trying to solve.  But applying the disastrous strategies of No Child Left Behind to higher education is no solution.  American colleges are still considered the best in the world. Let's focus on our problems without sacrificing what's working.