President Obama's proposal to create a federal scorecard for universities in two years has critics upset. "Americans should think ... hard before allowing the federal government to dominate … higher education," cautions The Wall Street Journal.
The problem isn't that some new government formula would take control of higher education. Before Obama set foot in office, the federal government was already in the driver's seat. Uncle Sam dominates higher education with the $150 billion in financial aid it gives out every year, more than twice the education spending of all 50 states combined.
The problem is that the new government scorecard is as flawed as the ones it would replace. And it would do little to fight the main problem in higher education — inflation disconnected from actual learning in college.
The sticker price for tuition at four-year public colleges has grown 27% above inflation over the past five years. That's in part because students have little data to compare the costs of college with the benefit of attending particular schools.
Most rating systems measure factors that have little to do with what learning happens at colleges. The U.S. News and World Report ratings, the most influential, are largely based on fame, wealth and exclusivity. Universities that reject more applicants get higher scores because they are more "exclusive." Likewise, colleges better at shaking down rich alumni are ranked higher.
Other ratings have their own problems. The Washington Monthly rates colleges not on "what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country." Colleges get higher ratings for graduating social workers than for business leaders.
Few such ratings include measures of learning, the only thing that really matters. The Obama plan would do nothing to fix that. Despite lip service to outcomes such as graduation rates and the ability to pay off student loans, measures that already exist, the administration's proposal includes no information on how the school is educating its students. How much do their skills improve? How do they compare in earnings with students with the same high school test scores?
Instead, the proposal would tie schools' financial aid to "affordability and accessibility." Universities graduating more low-income students receiving federal Pell grants would get a higher rating. In short, existing federal aid will justify more future federal aid. The ratings would promote political, not educational, goals.
What will help isn't another rating system, but persuading universities to measure real learning.
Most higher education experts regard the Collegiate Learning Assessment as a good measure of how higher education is increasing the skills of students. It tests a sample of entering and graduating students to measure the improvement in their critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. One-third of students in universities that use such tests show no gains after four years, which is why other universities aren't clamoring to adopt them.
Texas mandates that its public universities use the test and publish the results. Obama needn't go that far. But there would be nothing wrong with making federal aid conditional on the use of these tests.
The right way to prod universities to provide cost-effective education isn't another rating plan, but rather to empower students with information about just what they are getting.
This column originally appeared in USA Today