A Federal College Scorecard?

With rapidly rising college tuition and many graduates unable to get employment in their field, there’s a growing demand for better value for money in higher education.  But a challenge for most would-be college students is how to know whether a particular college is or is not a bargain.  Like buying health care or hiring a financial adviser, higher education is a technically difficult purchase.  And the cost of making a mistake is likely to be huge and could last a lifetime.

So it is not surprising that some in the ever-helpful federal government have proposed a solution: a federal scorecard to help Americans make the college decision.  But as I pointed out earlier this year in reviewing President Obama’s proposals for tackling college costs, a federal scorecard is not the way to go.

One reason is that the methodology of any federal measure of quality, and the weighting of included factors, will be prone to intense lobbying pressure from higher education institutions seeking a competitive advantage.  For instance, high-cost institutions with tenured faculty who actually teach few courses will urge a high weighing for the student-faculty ratio.  That measure makes their inefficient use of teaching staff seem like good value, while newer colleges utilizing online courses and faculty with high teaching loads are made to seem lower quality.

Another reason is that there are many different ways to measure “quality” in education.  That’s customers for a college rank factors differently, just as customers do when buying a house or a car.  Not everyone is obsessed with how much they can earn upon graduation.  Some people actually put a high value on a rounded education.  Because students and their parents assign different values to factors, a “one-size” monopoly federal scorecard is a bad idea.

Federal action is also not needed.  There is a growing set of competing private scorecards.  They are steadily improving their methodologies and, appropriately, they rank colleges differently because they weigh factors differently.  So US News & World Report, Forbes and Kiplinger magazines concentrate on commercial value, but their rankings still differ.  Meanwhile the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) places a stronger emphasis in its ranking system on what core subjects students will learn.

It’s true that knowing which private scorecard to use can be a bit confusing.  But that’s normal when new information systems first become available, as it was when travel services like Travelocity and Expedia first appeared.  It doesn’t take long for customers to become familiar with the pros and cons of competing information services.  All we need for this not to happen smoothly is for Uncle Sam to barge in. 

Posted by: Stuart Butler

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