Rating Higher Education – An Update From Higher Learning Commission

If you are looking to energize a room full of college and university presidents, few issues are as effective as President Obama’s plan to develop a rating system of higher education institutions. Complaints come fast and furious. The idea – which speaks to the value of an education – unnerves many educators.

At the Higher Learning Commission’s annual conference in Chicago on Saturday, April 12, Department of Education Under Secretary Jamienne Studley presented on the Obama administration’s plan to rate institutions of higher education. It will happen – Presidential mandates usually do – but many questions await answers. The government has not made the structure of the plans for the rating system public, but it has made several broad promises. The system will look at access, affordability, and aspects of student success. It will not rank institutions and it will try to bring together similar institutions. The administration plans that once the system is up and running, a future administration will connect financial aid to performance. In other words, under-performing institutions would feel economic consequences.

As this is the third time that I have heard presentations about the plan and higher education officials complain, I have gained a better understanding of the plan and the resistance it has generated. While much of the controversy is natural – what sector seeks more regulation? – a deeper distrust stems from the various ways that participants use the term “value.” It is more than loaded. It speaks to systems of beliefs and in a complicated way, participants’ value systems.

Most people who pursue careers in higher education have value systems that are not systematically aligned with traditional economic values systems. Certainly academics seek more resources, higher salaries, and the like. Most academics and academic leaders have complicated priorities, though, when it comes to explaining and maximizing values. Some assert institutional development. Others pursue of mission. Many are driven by love of learning and their discipline. Virtually all see students and student success as the key reason we are educators. However, even with broad areas of agreement higher education is not of one mind when it comes to what it values.

Consequently, when those outside of education attempt to address the question of the value of an education in terms of post-graduate student outcomes such as employment data, many within the academia feel threatened on multiple fronts. The relevance of their value system is being questioned along with their effectiveness as educators. The aim of most institutions is to give a collective education in a variety of programs that leads to an educated adult. Some, but not all, programs are tied to careers. The strength of the multiplicity of paths and programs offers broad appeal to a wide range of students. It also renders the impact of any one course, action, or program problematic. Institutions of higher learning will emphasize that they educate students to make smart and informed choices. The goal is an educated student.

From the outside, the negative reaction from academics to a rating system makes little sense. The federal government invests billions of dollars in student aid so that the nation has an educated populace. Educated people are employable. Outcomes – especially positive economic outcomes – are in everyone’s best interest. The difficulty that so many Americans face in financing a college education, whose costs have risen faster than inflation, begs the question. Costs need must be contained. It is essential to understand the importance of the price of an education in this larger context.

The government’s underlying assumption is that through the rating system students and their families will make more educated choices, establishing greater efficiency and effectiveness in the higher education system. The system will likewise incentivize institutions. The goal is worthwhile. And while I welcome more and better information to the public, I have doubts that the rating system and market forces will lower tuition and student costs. I believe that a comprehensive and collective direct effort to address the issue of rising educational costs is needed. It is a concern shared by students, government officials, and the higher education community. I believe that the higher education community, possibly through the regional accrediting agencies, can work with the Department of Education to establish deeper and better understandings of how institutions can measure their effectiveness in controlling tuition and fees.

Currently, regional accreditation focuses primarily on educational quality. While examination of an institution’s finances are part of the process, the focus is on an institution’s sustainability and financial processes. Cost to students simply is not part of the picture. Challenged to make its costs more transparent, to demonstrate investment in students, and to work to control costs to make higher education more affordable, higher education can rise and meet the challenge. It will be difficult. Success, though, would help students and higher education’s relationship with the American public and government.

David Potash

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