Grading Obama's College-Ranking Proposal

Grading Obama's College-Ranking Proposal

By Carl M. Cannon - August 26, 2013

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- President Obama and I both spent Thursday and Friday rallying college students in upstate New York. We weren’t doing this activity together; he was macro, I was micro. My job was helping move a daughter into the dorm for her freshman year at Syracuse University. Obama was trying to ensure that more American students can attend the school that best helps them realize their dreams—without amassing an untenable mountain of debt.

I’m pulling for the president in this endeavor. Syracuse seems terrific, and the right place for our kid. But it is expensive, as is every private university in this country. For our family, as for most, attendance here is made possible by a combination of belt-tightening, scholarships, and loans.

So let’s look at what Obama is proposing. His big idea is to have the federal government rank colleges—and then link federal aid, in the form of student loan guarantees, to the results of those rankings. Let’s stipulate that the second part of that equation will be tough sledding: altering such funding formulations requires new legislation, something our perpetually gridlocked Congress would likely have trouble doing. So it might not even happen.

The first part of the president’s equation is something the executive branch can do on its own. But should it? Several organizations, many of them private media concerns, already rank colleges. The most well-known is U.S. News & World Report, which made a franchise out of this exercise many years ago. This niche earned the magazine a lot of money, along with legions of detractors. These critics range from jealous competitors to some of the most thoughtful commentators on the higher education scene.

Many higher-ed experts find the U.S. News methods too subjective, not transparent enough, elitist, and predictable. (For 2013, for instance, Harvard and Princeton tied at the top in the rankings, with Yale third, and two other private schools, the University of Chicago and Columbia, rounding out the top five.) Addressing such concerns, U.S. News has added other categories, such as “Regional Colleges,” to their mix.

This process has spawned imitators. Princeton Review has waded into the college ranking pool, along with other publishing organizations including Forbes, Kiplinger, and Washington Monthly. The annual rankings by the latter, a small, liberal, Washington-based magazine, are actually my favorite. Its criteria are somewhat idiosyncratic, but I like them.

Each year, Washington Monthly ranks colleges and universities in three areas: (1) contributions as a research institution; (2) success in contributing to upward social mobility; (3) the percentage of students who use their degree to engage in public service. I suspect one reason I like it so much is that my alma mater, the University of Colorado, scores in the top 15 in the public service category.

This year, in anticipation of the Obama administration’s push for higher education rankings, Washington has added a fourth category: “Best Bang for the Buck.”

Harvard, Princeton, and Yale are not near the top of this list; neither is Syracuse (nor Colorado). Here, the Top 10 boasts schools such as Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton, University of Florida, Appalachian State, the University of Georgia, both N.C. State and UNC Chapel Hill, as well as two schools in New York’s CUNY system. But there is no formula—the top school in the bang-for-your buck category is Amherst.

Presumably, Amherst would do well in the Obama Rankings, or whatever they will be called. What will the federal government measure? In a campaign-style event in Buffalo on Thursday, the president outlined them. Beginning in 2015, he indicated, the Department of Education will start evaluating colleges and universities on such measures as the tuition they charge; student debt ratios upon graduation; default rates on student loans; four-year graduation rates; percentage of low-income students they enroll and matriculate; the salaries those students earn after leaving school.

Are these good metrics? The last one seems most problematic, but why not?

Some conservatives will see Obama’s gambit as yet another attempt at income redistribution; they’d prefer that the president pursue policies that would expand the economy so that graduating students could find work and repay their college loans without living in their parents’ basements.

Libertarians, who already look skeptically at Washington’s heavy hand in higher education, will see this as moving in the wrong direction. Good-government types—some of them liberal, some conservative—will argue that the federal government has the right, if not an obligation, to keep track of how taxpayers’ dollars are being spent.

Me, I’m wearing my journalist’s hat on this one. Additional data is always welcome. The more rankings the better. Welcome to the party, Mr. President. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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