In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Laura Colarusso and Jon Marcus make a very important point about the politics of the Obama administration’s proposed college ratings system: the timing is making it an exhibit in the GOP effort to demonize executive actions as an unconstitutional overreach. So opponents of the rating system on more immediate grounds–say, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), who fear some of their members won’t look good in any system where net cost and economic benefits are weighed and compared–are getting themselves some unexpectedly strong GOP help.
A second argument made against the ratings shows how complicated the issue has become: they won’t be based on accurate student data, particularly with respect to post-college earnings. But the same higher ed lobbyists who oppose ratings have opposed allowing the “student unit record keeping” that could make them more accurate. And there’s competing sentiment in Congress to variously mandate (a Wyden-Rubio bill) or ban (threats from Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep Virginia Foxx) student unit records.
So, say Collarusso and Marcus, here’s where we stand with the ratings due this fall:
If Washington were a rational place, the political path forward for reform advocates would be obvious. First, they could take advantage of the fractures among the Big Six and push some version of the Wyden-Rubio bill through Congress. Then, with the underlying federal data problems fixed, the administration could implement a rating system with confidence that the best arguments against it—and perhaps at least some of the political resistance to it—would have disappeared.
Washington, however, is far from rational these days. Despite growing support for student unit records, almost no one thinks legislation allowing it will pass in the foreseeable future, especially in the GOP-controlled House. At the same time, despite growing opposition to the rating system, almost no one thinks that the efforts by Lamar Alexander and others to bar the Obama administration from using existing federal funds to build it will pass. Even if they did, Obama could veto them.
So the administration is expected to use its power and put forth a proposed new rating this fall, but one that, in recognition of the data limitations, is less clear and definitive than reformers wanted or opponents feared. The administration is gambling that once the rating system is up and running, the higher ed lobby will decide that improving it makes more sense than continuing to fight it, thus hastening the day when a student unit record bill can pass Congress.
The danger is that the inevitable imperfections in the rating system will be used by opponents as evidence that the federal government doesn’t know what it’s doing and shouldn’t be in the business of regulating colleges, thus making passage of a student unit record bill less likely. Which of these scenarios proves true only time will tell.
It probably won’t help if the promulgation of the ratings gets caught up in a political and media firestorm involving wild overreactions to “executive overreaching.” But that’s looking more and more unvavoidable. You can certainly expect the overpaid executives of bad, overpriced, semi-fraudulent colleges to join in full cry the campaign against the Tyrant Obama.