In August President Obama called for a college rating system. College costs and student loan defaults have risen dramatically while the job market has increased its demand for baccalaureate degrees. More people attend college now than ever before. Means of obtaining a baccalaureate degree have expanded and diversified. Yet the entire enterprise has remained quite opaque. Calling for meaningful metrics to ascertain value is a very good thing. But before you can apply measurement you must know what it is you’re measuring. Is the value of a 4-year degree in the recipient’s lifetime earnings? Is the value of a specific degree the speed in which one can earn what was spent/borrowed? Is the knowledge accumulated in four years measurable (and how do we allow for varying disciplines and institutions?) Certain things are quite measurable, such as attrition and graduation rate. But there is nothing about a dropout rate that indicates a subpar education, it does however suggest an issue with the admissions process and students services. Should a college rating system take into account more than education? The argument could be made that vigorous student services have as much to do with higher education than job placement.
We may think that college is nothing more than job training for the majority of participants; we’d be wrong. There are still many people who major in the liberal arts. There are English, Mathematics, History, Religion and Biology majors graduating every year with no plans of attending graduate school. These (presumably) well-educated people will (hopefully) enter the workforce with or without debt. How do we rate how well their college served them? An undergraduate degree in Mathematics most likely will not produce the same income as the equivalent degree in Engineering. And what of the Fine Arts majors? Will we measure the income or job placement of an artist? Do we take into consideration why the budding artist chose to attend college (versus a conservatory or institute)? Clearly there are far too many variables at work to come up with a meaningful rating system. What if instead of a rating we demanded transparency? What if we eliminated all tricks of admissions (e.g., early admission, early decision, early action)? What if we made it crystal clear exactly how it all worked? What if front and center on every piece of admissions propaganda was the exact price of everything? Listed alongside was the true percentage of how many students pay the list price. By eliminating the new car lot/airline travel smoke and mirrors from the get go, people have a better sense of what they’re getting for their money. The next step would be all financial aid officers to be legally obligated to inform students of all options. For example, an officer would have to inform a student that he/she could (a) attend a community college, transfer in and save almost 50%; (b) complete his/her degree in 3 years and save 25% (c) apply for grants, research assistantships, and awards. Most undergraduate colleges/universities ask students to officially declare their major. Before a final declaration is made a student should be provided with timely and accurate information about areas of study and what can typically be expected from those majors. A student should be aware of all the different paths to a career as well as all the different careers that can result from one path. They need to hear from faculty and alumni about their own academic and career choices. Each department would be held to a standard of transparency and informed consent when approving a student’s choice of major.
Beyond transparency lie two less manageable realities; in the end people will pay more than they should for things they cannot afford and the workplace will continue to demand college graduates until they provide a meaningful alternative. This is the darker side of the issue. It’s far easier to point our fingers at the costly culprit that is college, than to admit that our K-12 system has eroded. There was a time in which a high school diploma was a ticket into meaningful (white-collar) employment. Today more than one-third of college students need remedial courses. There’s no reason to assume that college has maintained any semblance of rigor, so one can only imagine what the real state of education actually is. Bringing a high school diploma back to what it was is a complicated and daunting prospect. It would appear to be much easier to just consider a baccalaureate to be the new high school diploma. The ethics of pawning off a public obligation to a (mostly) private enterprise is questionable. We can (slightly) mitigate that failing by making the entire process as transparent as possible.