Field of Science

Government ranking of U.S. universities: a truly bad idea

The U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has come up with a plan to produce official government rankings of our universities.

The plan was announced this past August, and over the past month, the Obama administration has been holding public forums around the country to get input about its plan.  But it seems like they’ve already made up their minds.

I hope not.  This is such a bad idea I don’t know where to start.  But I’ll start.

First of all, we have multiple rankings systems already, including the highly regarded U.S. News college rankings, which millions of students, faculty, and administrators use every year.  Even though everyone loves to complain about it, U.S. News is pretty darned good: they rank colleges in many categories, by region, by specialty, and more. They also rank graduate programs and professional schools such as law and medicine.

If you don’t like U.S. News, there are several other rankings, including the more recently established World Rankings from Shanghai and The Times Higher Education rankings. These are excellent rankings, well-documented using multiple criteria, and not nearly so US-centric. All these websites are chock-full of useful data about hundreds of universities.

I know, I know: “ratings aren’t rankings” as Ben Miller wrote recently at the Inside Higher Ed site. But I’m not at all confident that the proposed ratings won’t turn into a ranking system, especially with the weight of the federal government behind them.

So we don’t need a federal ranking of universities. That’s the first problem.

Second, this push to create official ratings will inevitably lead to a new bureaucracy within the Education Department, which will then create a constituency that will fight to keep itself in existence. How many staff will Secretary Duncan hire to create these rankings? Dozens? Hundreds?  And how many university employees around the country will then have to be hired to answer whatever questions the government asks?  This seems like it could quickly become a very expensive proposition, running in the tens of millions of dollars annually, or perhaps even more. I haven't seen any estimate of how much this new system would cost, but I'm betting on a lot. What will we cut from the federal budget to create this new system?

Third, a ranking system will likely spawn a host of new requirements that universities will have to satisfy. Why? Well, primarily because federal financial aid to universities will be tied to their ratings. Thus it’s pretty clear that universities will do whatever they can to keep the feds happy. And I’ve no doubt that with a full-time bureaucracy in place, the federal raters will keep moving the goalpost - coming up with new measures that in turn will spur new costs throughout academia. I’m highly skeptical that any of these government metrics will lead to better education.

We’ve already seen what government scorecards do in our public education system. Thanks to the No Child Left Behind program, we now have incessant testing of students, beginning in elementary school, and thousands of hours devoted to teaching students how to take tests rather than learn new material. Schools have not improved as a result. Do we want this trend to creep into colleges too?

I’m not the only one who thinks this a bad idea. Janet Napolitano, the president the University of California system and former Secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama, told the Washington Post that she is “deeply skeptical” of the criteria that a federal ratings bureau would develop.
“It’s not like you’re buying a car or a boat,” said Napolitano.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has already criticized the critics of the new rankings system, calling the criticism “premature and a little silly.”  Duncan emphasizes the need to address the alarming number of college students who default on their student loans. This is certainly a problem, but a college ranking (or rating) system is not the solution.

Perhaps the biggest problems with student debt is the rapid rise in mediocre, for-profit online colleges. If the feds want to get the loan problem under control, they should stop funneling money to these Yugos of higher education. As the PBS show Frontline pointed out in 2010, for-profit universities are
 “churning out worthless degrees that leave students with a mountain of debt.”  
And they’re not cheap, either - the GAO found that
“tuition in 14 out of 15 cases, regardless of degree, was more expensive at the for-profit college than at the closest public colleges.”
So yes, we do have a problem with student debt. One solution would be to exclude truly bad colleges, which are responsible for a disproportionate share of student debt, from federal aid. But that would mean naming the bad apples, who in turn will claim that the government is somehow being unfair. Perhaps the new ratings are an attempt to be fair, but it just makes no sense to rate everyone in order to identify the worst universities. Having a federal government agency produce college rankings is just a bad idea.

1 comment:

  1. "But that would mean naming the bad apples, who in turn will claim that the government is somehow being unfair."

    I think it's unfair to offer bad education, and hence worthless degrees to students while leaving them heavily indebted. The government exists in order to protect its citizens form ruthless criminals.


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