An Obama administration plan to grade higher education beginning with the 2015-16 school year is causing concern among leaders of colleges and universities because of the intent to tie scores to federal aid.
Leaders of local institutions are generally supportive of the concept of accountability. But, although it sounds good at first blush, they say, there are multiple devils to be found among the details.
“Lewis and Clark has been engaged in research for the last four years on student progression and success so we are in favor of an accountability system,” said Linda Chapman, vice president of academic affairs at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey. “The agreement that we share with the American Association of Community Colleges is that the system the Department of Education is rolling out, PIRS, the Postsecondary Institution Rating System, does not use the metrics that the Voluntary Framework of Accountability (a system used by community colleges) uses. That’s a system that is much more reflective of community college students and how they progress through the college.”
And that points out one of the devilish details, according to McKendree University President Jim Dennis. How can you compare colleges that range from a small rural community college to an MIT or Harvard?
“I think using one formula for comparison is problematic and really ill advised,” said Dennis. “I don’t know how you take a small school and compare it to a big school and schools that have specific goals related to trying to help poor students, first generation students, Hispanic students or African-American students, for example, and compare those with schools that have a different focus.”
While the grading system is still under development, it appears clear that one of the measuring sticks will be employment and earnings after graduation. Trying to compare earnings across a broad geography and a wide range of majors is also problematic, they say.
One concern is privacy, according to Chapman. She points out that some majors have very few students in them so that, if you report the placements and the salaries, you’ve just violated their privacy.
Another problem with using income as a measuring stick, Chapman says, is salaries vary widely over geography. Comparing what a teacher or police officer makes in Alton and what one makes in Chicago, New York or San Francisco is really comparing apples and oranges, she says.
Dennis points out another issue with using salaries as a yard stick.
“They are going to discourage some students from taking majors that are perhaps more altruistic — things like social work, education or law enforcement” Dennis said. “And they’ll also discourage institutions from offering those majors. If I wanted my school to score well on those metrics, I would focus on technology and engineering because those students are going to go out and earn a lot of money in their first year.”
Another proposed category for comparison in the PIRS is graduation rates. Many would see that as a significant measure of the success of a higher education institution, but, what may sound simple is anything but, according to local educators.
“Overall, it is difficult to argue with the concept,” said Julie Furst-Bowe, chancellor of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “No one wants students left with no degree and a high student debt load. If these models motivate institutions to implement programs, services and policies that improve retention and graduation, everyone benefits.
“However,” she added, “many of the models fail to consider part-time students, transfer students, ‘at risk’ students, etc. We know that high school performance (measured by ACT score, GPA and class rank) is the best predictor of college performance. So, should we stop enrolling students who had average or below average performance in high school?”
Also, with declining state budgets, there is very little funding to add new staff to administer new retention programs and services, she said.
“Exit interviews with students often indicate that students are leaving for reasons beyond our control, including desire to pursue a major that isn’t offered at SIUE, financial problems or personal reasons, including illness or relationship issues,” Furst-Bowe said.
“My other concern is that those schools that do well on the criteria will receive more financial aid to help students than those who are not doing well,” Dennis said. “This is going to discourage institutions from working with students who are less able from the beginning.”
Local educators are not alone in their concerns. A survey conducted last year by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup found that most of the 675 college presidents polled doubt that President Obama’s plan to promote affordable higher education will be effective. Only 13 percent said that they think the ratings will help students make better decisions. And only 16 percent of college presidents believe that eventually linking financial aid to the proposed rating system is a good idea.