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Rating Colleges the Wrong Way

Ordinarily I restrict my comments to pre-K through 12. But the latest proposal by President Obama to reward colleges on the basis of his criteria cries out for a response ("Obama Wants College Aid Tied to Rating System," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 23). This is particularly so because the federal government invests $150 billion in student financial aid, and states chip in $70 billion more.

Obama starts off on the wrong foot by declaring that higher education is a necessity rather than a luxury. I assume now that he is referring to a bachelor's degree, as opposed to an associate's degree or a certificate. If I'm correct, I question his statement because only 20 percent of jobs today require a college degree, according to the Department of Labor. The future looks worse because the majority of new jobs created in the next decade will not require a bachelor's degree.

More fundamentally, however, I disagree that four-year institutions should be evaluated for the most part on the number of students who graduate on time and/or how well those graduates do in the workforce. Let me take these two points in order.

If colleges are rated on the number of students who graduate on time, or even on the number of students who graduate at all, the effect will be to lower standards. No school wants to be penalized because it handed out failing grades to students whose work did not pass muster. Colleges will simply do everything in their power to look good by gaming the system. The result will be to flood the U.S. with degrees that mean virtually nothing. As I've written before, I do not believe that quality and quantity can exist simultaneously.

If colleges are also rated on their graduates' subsequent earnings, this will eventually turn them into little more than trade schools. Training and education certainly overlap. But the former deals with techniques, while the latter deals with concepts. A half century ago, John Keats wrote a book titled The Sheepskin Psychosis (Delta Books, 1963). He made that important distinction, and warned that the American public was wildly oversold on the importance of college. But no one paid any attention to him. Then five years ago, Charles Murray picked up where Keats left off in writing Real Education (Crown Forum, 2008). He used the term "educational romanticism" to explain why college is not for everyone if standards are to mean anything at all.

I continue to believe that the value of a college education cannot and should not be overwhelmingly measured in terms of what the degree buys in the workplace. For example, teachers will never earn what investment bankers do. Therefore, if colleges are rated on what Obama proposes, they will be converted into training camps for corporations that are eager to get employees ready to hit the ground running. Research will be driven solely by its predicted market value, and professors will become essentially corporate employees. Let's not forget that money buys control. As long as colleges are doing the bidding of their corporate masters, they will receive a high rating. But at what price to the country?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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