Sunday, May 18, 2014

A College Rating System - Long Overdue

At one time, when the costs of attending university were reasonable and the loans taken out didn't hurl a student into massive, encumbering debt, one could more or less overlook relative college ratings and rankings. Yes,  U.S. News and World Report did them, but generally those in the know regarded them more as academic schmaltz and PR bunkum- though many parents (and students) took them seriously.

When I attended Loyola University for the first time (1964), I was vaguely aware it held position among the top ten ranked mid-sized private universities in the southeast. The problem was, though I got a scholarship there, Loyola really didn't offer what I wanted - which was a major in astronomy. Only some time later did I learn that a team of Yale University astronomers had been re-assembled at the University of South Florida, Tampa and were offering this degree for the first time. Hence, transferring to USF made sense. Not only that, but it claimed one of the top ranked Astronomy Departments among U.S. universities - thanks to the Yale presence.

The result is that I received a terrific education and for a bargain basement price, with only about $1,700 in student loans to pay off.  This situation is so rare today that it scarcely bears mention. Students and their families are now under enormous cost pressures as private loans take on almost predatory aspects.

What to do? I believe, as does Obama, that universities today ought to be subject to some kind of evaluation or rating system. Hell, if students are damned near hocking themselves (and their families) in perpetuity they damned sure ought to know what they're getting. Alas, most of American academia is firmly opposed - likely because of an entrenched fear federal funding may be lost if low ratings emerge.

But this places the cart before the horse. While congressional approval indeed would be needed to tie federal support to ratings, Obama really doesn't require congress' permission to create such a system in the first place. Like so many ratings systems, i.e. physicians on Angie's list, people - prospective students and families-   will at least know what they are getting into when mammoth student loans are taken out.

The good news is that the Dept. of Education is to publish a first draft of the plan for the 2015-16 academic year.  In the meantime, the battle is not so much about whether the rating system will occur but how it will take shape. Questions include:

What metrics will the government use?

How much weight will be put on each measure?

Which colleges will be compared with each other?

How will the rating system work as a guide to students and a tool for accountability?

In many cases, rational input can assist in making determinations. For example, among the most critical metrics to use is the graduation rate. Graduation rate will necessarily reflect not only the student intake quality (remedial students have much lower rates)  but the quality of education for the institution. This ought to have a significant weight attached to it as well.   It also follows from this that universities of the same size ought to be compared. Thus, Loyola (6,000 students) would not be compared in the same category with University of South Florida (33, 000 students).

The issue of rating metrics for accountability is dicey and one must take care not to be sucked into the "university quality = later job success" meme.  As Dr. Steven Mason has aptly noted ('The Myth of Higher Education', Integra No. 9, Oct.  2010), and which the rating system devisers would do well to bear in mind:

"the bottom line regarding a well -rounded education is that it has nothing to do with any kind of bottom line. Its value (non-monetary) is to be found in the quality it adds to one's life. It allows one to better appreciate music, art, history and literature. It contributes to a better understanding of language and culture, nature and philosophy. It expands rather than limits horizons and replaces faith and belief with reason and logic"

The moral of the story may be that it’s more important for students to select a major to which they can fully commit and pour energy and heart into to end up with a degree, than one that may be more ‘pragmatic’ but which they’re not invested in. This is especially important given that nearly 3 in 5 U.S. students bail out before completing the 4-year degrees. One plausible reason is that the dropouts selected a major for the wrong reasons.

If one does demand accountability the most sensible option is to use graduation rate in tandem with an objective assessment test (e.g. GRE) that measures one's post-graduate skill level. or how much one has really learned. (Internal university grades are not a proper indicator on account of rampant grade inflation.)

Thus, the higher the graduation rate (for the given category of size school assessed) and the higher the mean GRE score, the better. Of course, this likely means universities will have to make taking the GRE mandatory. But I see no problem with that, at all. Again, the GRE would provide at least an objective measure - not related to any later job success (which like Dr. Mason, I believe to be irrelevant) of how well a university done educating the minds in its charge.

As for "teacher evaluations" by students, say to assess staff quality, well that is a non-starter.   These absurd evaluations bestow a power to  immature students'  that was hitherto unavailable. Trouble is, the power has been misused and abused to the point profs are terrified of giving anything less than a 'B' for fear of retribution on the eval form! (Which many universities and colleges egregiously use for judging whether the prof is tenure-worthy - or worth just retaining in a assistant professorship-   as opposed to being relegated to the realm of the adjunct.)

Whatever ratings system finally emerges is not likely to satisfy all schools, but then we ought to be aware that no school (or person) likes negatives anyway - and there are bound to be more than one may accept. (If it was up to me, I'd also include the stats on sexual assaults for each school!) But this isn't about pleasing the egos of select schools or assorted special interests, but the parents and students who will be footing the gigantic student loan bills.

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