Debating a Federal Scorecard for Higher Ed

Panelists say that a new Obama administration effort to rate colleges and universities needs much refinement to be truly useful

panelists at the roundtable event

The college and university rating system proposed by the Obama administration is not the way to reel in the spiraling costs of higher education, according to Tufts faculty, administrators and students who debated the issue in a roundtable discussion on Oct. 15.

Calling the rating system an overly simplistic attempt to apply business-sector models to the complexities of higher education, all eight panelists issued warnings about the flaws in Obama’s “College Scorecard” and its potential negative consequences. The event, “White House Roundtable: The Obama Administration and Higher Education,” is one in a series of discussions on current issues affecting higher education moderated by Tufts Provost David Harris.

The federal scorecard is an interactive website that gives prospective students and their families data about tuition and other costs, graduation rate, loan default rate, average amount borrowed and the prospects for employment after graduation. It is just one piece of the administration’s larger plan to ensure that parents and students can choose colleges with “the biggest bang for their buck,” Obama has said.

To reward colleges that implement cost efficiencies and educational innovations while improving accessibility and graduation rates, the administration wants to increase federal funding for those institutions. Just a bare-bones plan now, Obama has charged the U.S. Department of Education with developing a more comprehensive rating system before the 2015–16 academic year.

“The Obama administration is proposing that colleges should operate according to market mechanisms, encouraging competition,” said Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science in the School of Arts and Sciences, not because it is the best solution, but because higher education has failed to provide its own strategies for controlling costs.

All the panelists acknowledged that college costs have risen dramatically—more than 250 percent—over the past three decades, while typical family incomes have grown by just 16 percent, according to College Board and census data. But, they argued, the remedy remains elusive.

“The Department of Education is not really full of people who understand higher education—it’s full of people who understand K to 12,” said Harris. “It’s hard [for those in academia] to offer advice, because the premise is flawed and the data do not exist to support a system that would accomplish their goals.” Beyond just income and jobs, education should impart values of good citizenship and social responsibility, said panelist Nancy Wilson, dean of the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

Also missing from the metrics is an acknowledgement that research conducted at colleges and universities contributes greatly to society, both economically and through health breakthroughs, said Simin Meydani, director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts. There are great merits in the plan’s intention to provide accessibility and affordability in education, because that leads to social mobility, she said, but the equation must also take into account the quality of that education.

Research and service do not figure into the rating system, Meydani added, even though both are important to prospective students.

Quality Matters

“We want to be the kind of place that is not just for the elite,” said Harris, and that also gives students opportunities to learn from top faculty as well as an energizing residential college experience.

But therein lies the conflict, said Patricia Campbell, executive vice president. Tufts needs to maintain its high academic standards that lead to success, she said, but its largest source of income by far is tuition, while the lion’s share of its budget is consumed by salaries and benefits.

“How do we keep good people while keeping tuition low?” Campbell asked, noting that she is leading the Tufts Effectiveness in Administrative Management (TEAM) effort to bring more efficiencies to such infrastructure as information technology and facilities. Making university operations more effective, she said, would free up funds for financial aid and academic priorities.

The student panelists said that the federal ratings system is designed only to address costs, but not the quality of education.

The scorecard proposed by President Obama is a one-size-fits-all approach that does “little to include measures of learning, the thing that really should matter the most,” said Mirza Ramic, a student at the Fletcher School. For many employers who are skeptical about the value of college credentials, “showing the attainment of specific skills will matter more than grades or degrees,” he said.

Still, colleges need to do much more to control costs, said Samuel Kelly, A15. He knows of another undergraduate who lives three miles off campus, holds three jobs and had to pull out of the Tufts dining plan because she couldn’t afford it—her financial aid was not enough to cover her costs.

“Universities have got to have some kind of mechanism, some external force to make them reduce these costs,” Kelly said. “[High cost] means that we are losing out on a lot of great students” who can’t afford Tufts.

In choosing each class, Susan Ardizzoni, director of undergraduate admissions, said her office’s focus is on finding students who will benefit from the Tufts experience, both in the education they receive and in the contributions they might make after graduation.

“Obviously cost is a huge issue for students and parents,” said Ardizzoni. “But I feel fortunate to work at a place like Tufts where we value diversity, so accessibility is something we care deeply about. But at the end of the day, cost continues to be an issue.”

Gail Bambrick can be reached at 

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