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College Ratings: A Good, Fair or Poor Idea to Increase Completion and Lower Student Debt?

June 17, 2014

Andrea Buchanan ’15

Back in February 2014, President Obama made it clear in his State of the Union speech that he was going to make full use of his executive order privileges and dubbed 2014 “a year of action”-with or without the support of Congress. One of his commanding points and areas of focus was education, specifically higher education. Now, Obama seeks to improve college completion and accessibility through a college rating system. He announced in his 2013 State of the Union address that his administration would be rolling out a College Scorecard, which would help students and families compare schools so they would get the “most bang for [their] educational buck.” While this tool is helpful in comparing schools based on cost, Obama is now trying to push it one step further and actually develop a ranking system for colleges and universities.

In a recent article published by the New York Times, college and university presidents expressed their growing concern over the development of a college rating system. They claim that rating colleges is not the solution needed to help more students graduate, and with less debt. According to the article, the rating system would be based on “graduation rates, student debt accumulated while in school, and what students earn after they graduate.” Congress would then give out federal aid to schools based on how they scored, leaving low scoring schools little to offer in terms of financial aid. College presidents predict that this model – putting financial concerns ahead of academics – could cause harm to exceptional schools that fall under the liberal arts category or have a high proportion of programs such as drama and theater that produce degrees that tend to be less profitable immediately after graduation. Additionally, since less federal aid for students may be appropriated to schools based on ratings, it may limit the number of students who apply to colleges or even prevent students from going to their “dream” school. This seems counter-intuitive to Obama’s goal of increasing both college access and affordability.

Despite the outcry from college presidents, the Obama administration is pushing forward with the college rankings, looking to extend the executive branch into a system that is currently dominated by private firms. But the rankings put out by the Princeton Review or U.S. World & News do not come with any penalties, such as loss of funding, at least from the federal side. In addition to the college ranking system, Obama is also using an executive order to help lower student debt. His order, known as “Pay-As-You-Earn,” caps student loan payments at 10% of a borrower’s monthly income. While this makes it easier for those who are already incurring student loan debt, it does not really do anything to encourage more students to attend and complete school, nor does it make college more affordable. It is a half measure that fails to address the larger problem created by limited federal aid to education and a slow, lagging economy that has yet to see the job creation needed to satisfy the students who are graduating with degrees and encumbered with thousands upon thousands of dollars of debt.

Obama’s proposals for high education sound eerily familiar to the controversial No Child Left Behind policy (NCLB) and the belief that ranking schools and making them compete for funding would result in better academic results. In the case of college and universities, giving them rankings of “poor, satisfactory, good, and excellent” linked to funding can only produce the same, failed, result NCLB did. Schools, both primary and secondary education, need to receive funding and aid to help their students be able to graduate and afford to continue their education. They do not need that taken away. Students should receive more help on the front end of college, no matter what school they want to attend, and not wait until graduation to receive any sort of relief. This approach would incentivize students to go to college and also make it more affordable for them, thus achieving President Obama’s ultimate education goals in a more realistic way.

Andrea Buchanan ’15 is a political science and public policy major at Gettysburg College, currently interning at the Eisenhower Institute’s Washington, DC office.

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