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College Ratings Hurt High School Students

When President Obama announced plans to implement a rating system that evaluates colleges and universities based heavily on graduation rates and student earnings, he set in motion a strategy with unintended consequences  ("Tying Federal Aid to College Ratings," The New York Times, Jun. 25). If leaders in higher education know that the allocation of federal loans and grants will disproportionately rest on the stipulated criteria, they will have to decide whether they can afford to maintain strict academic standards.  The outcome has implications for high school students across the country.

Before the obsession with college took hold, students and their parents determined whether a bachelor's degree was the correct choice by taking into account only individual needs, interests and abilities.  Those students who opted for a four-year degree did so without the kind of pressure that their counterparts today face.  As a result, most students graduated on time and found well-paying jobs immediately thereafter.

The picture today, however, is far different.  College graduation rates in the U.S. are among the lowest in the developed world.  That's disturbing but not at all surprising.  The truth is that too many students do not have the ability to do college-level work.  As a result, they drop out, with substantial student debt to pay off.

Realizing that graduation rates and salaries earned will negatively affect their chances of receiving the $180 billion annually invested in higher education, college and university leaders will likely lower graduation requirements in order to look good.  Doing so will allow them to claim that they serve their students well - in addition to qualifying for federal money - but it will degrade the value of a bachelor's degree.  This is already happening.

It will also pressure students to choose a major in a field that doesn't necessarily suit them. According to a new study by three Yale economists, the salary gap between graduates who major in science and business and those in the arts and social sciences is even greater during a recession ("A College Major Matters Even More in a Recession," The New York Times, Jun. 20). Even holders of an associate degree in a technical field are earning more than those with a bachelor's degree in a non-technical field, at least early in their career ("Surprising Findings on Two-Year vs. Four-Year Degrees," The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 25). 

I'm not saying that the sole purpose of a bachelor's degree should be to make money.  Far from it. But President Obama's plan will ultimately force colleges and universities to make hard choices that do not always serve their students well. Parents and students need to be more skeptical about what is being promulgated.

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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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