“Quality” Defined by Government-run College Ratings?

Many thanks to Haley Sweetland Edwards for raising, in a thoughtful manner, the issue of college ratings in a Time Magazine piece entitled “Should US Colleges Be Graded by the Government?”  In her article, Edwards covers the gamut of issues driving the debate, including the dramatic increase in loan debt, the terrible approach to evaluating and approving student loans, and the federal budget burden of now more than $150 billion a year allocated to higher education.  She also discusses the ability of students to take on debt in staggering amounts that is not related to their program of studies, and the unevenness of information (or as some would say “atrociously bad data”) to create a fair rating system.

After over 40 years in this calling, I believe there are two fundamental issues that need to be resolved here. First, what do we mean by “quality?” And second, in a democracy where education was left purposely to the states by those who founded the country and its constitutional structure, is it a good precedent to have the federal executive branch of government deciding what “quality” looks like?

Joe Moore, president of Lesley College, and David Warren, former president of Ohio Wesleyan and current head of NAICU, are right to be worried, as is Terry Hartle, VP of Federal Relations for the American Council of Education. All represent very strong institutions and organizations with rich traditions of accomplishment. What binds them together and ties me to their perspectives is deep understanding of the extraordinary variety of students, learning modalities, curricula, and organizational formats existing within what we call “American Higher Education”. They understand that defining academic quality and effectiveness is no simple matter, even if it is a critical conversation that needs to happen.

Much of the current discussion is worrisome because if current federal rules are implemented as proposed, they won’t measure what is important. It is akin to measuring a person’s capacity to succeed in a career by how tall he/she is.  Equally importantly, they treat institutions unequally, focusing on the very institutions – community colleges and proprietary institutions – that serve a disproportionate number of marginalized and high risk-factor learners while giving all the others a free ride, at least for the time being. To complete this idiocy, they then turn around and assume that learners are all the same, favoring, thereby, the more affluent and better prepared over the more marginalized and older learners with whom we desperately need to succeed.

Leaving aside the issue of who should do the evaluation, and conceding that The US News and World Report rankings are a sales strategy, not a ranking system, how might we actually compare institution’s and their capacity fairly and accurately?

Have we forgotten the deeply flawed “No Child Left Behind” policy? That was a classic case of a policy that made political leaders in both parties happy; confident that they had done something to “fix” the problem of poor performing schools. What we discovered, however, was that being successful in schools, as a teacher or a learner, is more complicated than mandating what you have to know and tying the mandate to age.

This month I will be continuing the conversation of what defines a “quality” education with additional blog entries related to school rankings as well as a series of personal entries reflecting on important people I’ve encountered in my education career.  Stay tuned for more discussion.

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