The Long Hard Fight for College Accountability

When the president announced in August of 2013 that he had instructed the Department of Education to move ahead with a rankings system for U.S. colleges that would measure bang-for-the-buck and meaningful access for people most in need–as opposed to the wealth and selectivity criteria mainly used in the most prominent private ranking system, that of U.S. News and World Report—WaMo quite naturally led some cheers for reaching a milepost in a long battle. Here’s how WaPo’s Nick Anderson put it at the time:

President Obama said last week he wants to rate colleges on value and performance. The Washington Monthly, an independent magazine for policy wonks [and political animals!], released annual rankings Monday that attempt to do just that.

The Monthly, which for years has argued that conventional measures of college prestige are far less important than what colleges do for the country, is pleased that the president appears to be singing from its song sheet.

“It doesn’t happen every day that an administration does exactly what you want,” Paul Glastris, the Monthly’s editor in chief, said….

Glastris said that he doubts there is a significant ideological divide over what the nation wants in return for the billions of dollars taxpayers invest in higher education. But he predicted that colleges will fight back against measures to hold them accountable. The Monthly has pushed for results-oriented accountability through its rankings since 2005.

“Our argument — that higher education was increasingly expensive, biased in favor of the affluent and against the working class, largely unaccountable, and maybe much less rigorous than anyone was willing to say — I can’t say it fell on deaf ears, but it certainly wasn’t conventional wisdom.”

Now, echoes of the Monthly’s views can be heard coming from the White House.

After two delays, today the Department of Education is releasing a preliminary “outline” of the college rating system to come. Robert Kelchen of Seton Hall University, who has been intimately involved in preparing the WaMo rankings, offered this evaluation at College Guide:

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) released a document containing draft metrics for the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) today (link via Inside Higher Ed), with a request for comments from stakeholders and the general public by February. Although the release of the metrics was delayed several months (and we were initially expecting ratings this fall instead of just some potential metrics), the potential metrics and the explanations provided by ED provide insights about what the ratings will look like if (and when) they are finalized.

It appears that PIRS is very much in its infancy at this point, given the broadness of the suggested metrics and the difficulty in getting data on some of them in the next year or two. Putting college ratings together is methodologically quite easy to do, but politically very difficult. The delay in the timeline and the call for additional feedback by February highlight the political difficulty of PIRS. Given the GOP takeover of Congress, I think it’s safe to say that even if a full set of ratings comes out next week, the likelihood of ratings being tied to aid by 2018 (as the President has proposed) is basically nil….. But even getting draft ratings ready for the start of the 2015-16 academic year will be very difficult. ED has a lot of work to do before then.

On a separate front, Kelchen examined the tough politics of college rankings at Politico Magazine yesterday.

[I]t’s important to remember why the ratings were proposed in the first place. Since 1983, inflation-adjusted tuition and fees have increased by 153 percent at private nonprofit four-year colleges, 164 percent at community colleges and a whopping 231 percent at public four-year colleges. The federal government’s $170 billion in annual spending on grants, loans, work-study funds and tax credits has helped to alleviate the impact of these increases for students and their families, but federal funding has still not been able to keep up with ever-rising college costs and reduced per-student funding by most states.

It was in this climate that Obama announced his plan to create college ratings, aiming to have a final version written by fall of 2015.

As both Glastris and Kelchen anticipated, the pushback has only gotten more intense as the Department of Education has made its slow progress. Also at Politico yesterday, Stephanie Simon and Allie Grasgreen noted that the higher ed establishment has been joined by much of the congressional Republican Party in opposing the new metrics outline even before it was announced:

Congressional Republicans, outraged, are already going on the attack.

“They’re getting involved in something they have no business getting involved with,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), a former college administrator. “Absolutely, it’s overreach.”

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) plans to lead an effort to cut off funding for the ratings initiative. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has said he’ll do the same in the Senate. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is among many prominent voices denouncing the concept as profoundly flawed.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said he sees rating colleges as “a financial and moral obligation,” meant to help families make wise choices and to ensure taxpayers’ $150 billion annual investment in student aid isn’t squandered.

But GOP critics frame the rating plan — expected Friday — as yet another example of arrogance and imperialism from the White House. They argue that it’s not just presumptuous, but logistically impossible for the Education Department to assess the quality of so many institutions, ranging from Harvard to Honolulu Community College.

And they have some powerful allies in their corner, including several higher education trade associations and numerous college presidents, some of whom have been quietly lobbying their representatives for months — not that it took a lot of lobbying to rouse opposition to the ratings. Republicans on the Hill were already up in arms over the administration’s proposed crackdown on for-profit career-training colleges, calling it an unwarranted intrusion into the free market.

So GOPers, who have long been carrying water for the for-profit schools, are now linking arms with the collegiate status quo they normally attack for poisoning the minds of young Americans, and are describing a common-sense effort to stop fraud on students and taxpayers as “imperial,” and akin to Obama’s tyrannical efforts in immigration and Cuba policy.

So as we await these battles in Washington, and hope that at least the Obama initiative produces some new data on college affordability, access to low-income students, graduation rates and post-graduation outcomes, it’s more important than ever that WaMo continue to publish its rankings, so similar in spirit to what the administration is trying to accomplish, outside the congressional battleground. It could help convince those who aren’t “stakeholders” in the current system, or inveterate Obama-haters, that every parent, student and citizens should be able to expect the recipients of their dollars to come clean on what they are actually providing, and at what cost. Please help us keep up the fight.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.