Obama Higher Education
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Of the many things that the federal government is consistently bad at, making objective standards of evaluation is probably one of the worst. Whenever they attempt to form a national standard for anything, they are doomed from the start. It isn’t their fault; it is simply an unalterable tendency of a democratic institution that is tied to constituencies and groups of people that want the best chance at funding for their worthy endeavors. Thomas Jefferson’s words of caution come to mind: “I have not observed men’s honesty to increase with their riches.” This truth, however, will not prevent the current administration from trying to build honest standards through which to distribute federal funding. Last week Obama gave several speeches on his plans and vision for higher education. As a figure of our federal government, it is only natural that he looks to federal reforms for our educational institutions. His plan, however, is beyond misguided. It is foolish.
Part of his plan is to create a “college scorecard” (to be instituted by 2015), a rating system that would determine who would get federal funding and how much. The scorecard would use criterion like percentage of students with financial need admitted, affordability, graduation rates and diversity. There has not been any clear indication on how weighty each component will be or how they will be measured, which should worry everyone. Why? Because standards like this must be applied universally and without considering values unique to an institution. As a person who chose Westmont due to many factors that are impossible to measure in a standardized fashion, this means that my funding may be depleted because Westmont isn’t the poster school for affordability and diversity. Values like Christian enrichment or unity will undoubtedly be excluded from the scorecard. Ronald Daniels, President of John Hopkins University, comments “Any rating system I can imagine assumes that different families care about the same things and place the same priority on each of those things. And, in reality, they do not.” Kenneth Ruscio, President of Washington and Lee University, also agrees “The search for easy metrics will lead to measuring what can easily be measured, not what is of real value.” I know I don’t trust the federal government to decide what an economical and valuable education looks like and neither should you.
The low rating of my beloved Westmont isn’t the only thing that makes me dislike this idea. I also believe there is opportunity for major corruption. As in the case with pharmaceutical companies and the FDA’s standards, when the industry plays a huge part in forming and implementing the standards there is little critical evaluation being done and a lot of unfair advantages and exceptions being given. When there is a project of such magnitude as evaluating every institution of higher education in America, there is a high likelihood of insidious lobbying and favoritism. Existing institutions that have a lot of political clout would lobby hard and effectively to make the standards fit their interpretation of success. Education Secretary Arne Duncan plans to consult with colleges (though there was no indication as to which ones would be consulted) on the design of the ratings. Yeah, to make sure there is no temptation for the educational institutions to lobby their interests into these standards we’ll ask them how they think they should be ranked and then attach all their federal funding to their ranking…..good plan.
But beyond this, there is really no need for a federal standard system. We have multiple private evaluators such as the Princeton Review, US News and World Report, and Forbes to name a few. Each uses a different standard in order to target different aspects of institutions so that the consumer can make an informed judgment using many factors and rankings. Apparently Obama believes that a publicly dependent institution can create a more objective ranking system than an independent institution. There is a clear indication that the administration does not have an understanding of what standardized evaluation is. I echo the President of Goucher College’s concern when he writes: “The thought that the standard — and thus the rankings — might change from one administration to another is horrifying.” In the end, this plan will have to be approved by Congress. I sincerely hope for the sake of future students that our legislature sees the folly of this proposal.