A College Rankings System Tied to Federal Funding

In an effort to get feedback on President Obama’s plans to develop a federal college ratings system, the Education Department hosted the first in a series of public forums yesterday at California State University Dominguez Hills.

I first heard about this proposed federal college ratings system during my daily “yell at the radio while I eat toast” routine yesterday morning, and I have very mixed feelings about it! The White House has a handy factsheet on the matter if you’re similarly uninformed.

In short, the administration wants to give U.S. News ratings a run for their money by 2015, rating colleges based on students’ academic performance and, more crucially, their earnings after graduation. Plus, and this is where it gets complicated, they want to tie federal funding to said ratings by 2018. So if a school has historically underperformed (students get bad grades, don’t get jobs, can’t pay back their loans), and has given the government a poor return on its federal student loan investment, the government would limit students’ access to loan money.

As Inside Higher Ed reports, the primary concern at the public forum yesterday was that many students, especially the people who need financial aid the most, choose schools based on convenience and proximity to their homes. If these schools receive less federal aid, will those students no longer be able to afford to go to school? Not cool.

As much as I agree that we are in nothing short of a student loan crisis, and as much as I’m in favor of better educating students about the debt they are taking on, and what money actually is, and what paying off loans for the next 10 years will really feel like, this whole thing makes me nervous.

Though, would having all of the facts have stopped my financially naive 18-year-old self from taking on $30K in loans to study English at a private university instead of taking a full-ride in my home state? Would I have told myself that I’d be the exception? Or just told myself that I’d deal with after I graduated, and ignored the whole thing (yes, probably)? I’m still not sure I wish the government would have stepped in to stop me from signing on the dotted line, though.

Not to troll-bait some of you, but instead of this middle ground paternalism, let’s just go full on socialism and make all education free, am I right? HAPPY FRIDAY!

Photo: Jason Bache

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18 Comments / Post A Comment

wrappedupinbooks (#1,426)

This plan is also dumb because (a) colleges game those rankings anyway and (b) wouldn’t a highly ranked school have a larger endowment with which to fund scholarships? Like, I for one, went to the fanciest school I got into because it was the school that gave me the most money.

sea ermine (#122)

Also, what about careers that are low paying, and that will be low paying regardless of the quality of your education? Like, social work is low paying as are a number of other useful majors. If a school has strong programs in majors that lead to low paying careers they’ll show up badly on this rating even if they are doing a good job of preparing students for that career. And I’m assuming the U.S doesn’t want to discourage people from going into careers in social work or education or all kinds of other things.
Also, there are way more people looking for jobs than there are positions open, especially for recent grads with limited experience. If you go and study hard and get good grades and take out loans that in a normal situation you’d be able to pay back and then because of the economy you don’t get a job, it’s also going to mess up the rankings. Which is one of the problems with expecting 18 year olds with limited work history to take out loans to fund an education that they often need to get more work history but that wont guarantee them a job. Which is why it’s complete bullshit that students have to pay for state schools at all.

ETA Just to clarify, that last sentence wasn’t a criticism of state schools (I went to one) just a criticism of the idea that 18 year olds should have to take out loans to fund an education that nowadays is basically required for a job. We don’t expect that of any other kind of infrastructure, so why college?

Meaghano (#529)

@sea ermine Right, yeah. I could see an argument for discouraging people from taking out a bunch of student loans to get a social work degree at a private college (vs. state), but maybe it should end at discouragement. You know? Or like, have someone sit everyone down and be like SERIOUSLY, you will probably feel very fulfilled or at least engaged by your job, and you’re doing important work, but you will probably make X and your student loan bill every month will be Y, and this is what the cost of living in Z City is and this is what people spend on groceries every month, etc etc. But let them do what they want.

sea ermine (#122)

@Meaghano but the biggist issue with very low paying degrees is that sometimes, unless the school and housing are free there might not be a program cheap enough to make it affordable. Except some of those careers are things we need, so the government needs to meet students halfway, and IBR is not enough

Meaghano (#529)

@sea ermine amen!

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@sea ermine there’s another option. If these jobs are needed, but students need an expensive, unaffordable university education to qualify for employment, then perhaps the uni degree won’t be needed in the future.

sea ermine (#122)

@WayDownSouth this is true! I guess my issue is with degrees that are affordable but become unaffordable for certain groups (people going into low paying professions, people from low income families, people going into high paying professions who have a hard time finding a job). But I also grew up in countries with education that was either much more affordable than the US or that was paid via taxes so while I went to school in the US the whole system of paying for a degree when you have no money and then hoping you get a job that lets you pay it back is…odd to me.

sea ermine (#122)

@sea ermine The other issue that Im not sure how we’d resolve is that even if all low paying professions stopped expecting applicants to have degrees (something that I think would be a good move) there are still many professions that do require a degree (ex. Engineering). And yes, these tend to be high paying but, assuming you get hired you dont get paid until after you graduate. And the problem with college is that you have to pay first, when most 18 year olds are only making minimum eage. Even if you get a ton of scholarships and choose the cheap in state school you’ll still have to take out loans. A good friend of mine put himself through college, picked a STEM major, got a ton of grants and chose a state school, got great grades, worked all through college…and now has 40k in loans and makes $15 an hour at a job in his field. The only way for him to have prevented that would be to be born into a different family in a different state in a different time period.

The area where this ranking fails is that its abou SO much more than just grades and majors and school costs. Its about whether your parents can support you in college and the economy that you graduate into and all kibds of other things that are beyond the reach of a ranking and that can’t be fixed until we make education more affordable, and create more entry level jobs, and fix a whole host of other issues.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@sea ermine yes, you make some excellent points — it’s an interesting situation. When jobs are scarce, then there seems to be a bit of university degree inflation. So many jobs which wouldn’t seem to require a degree now appear to want one (e.g., police, social worker). In other professions (e.g., teachers), you get a raise simply for having a masters. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

When I read those very sad stories about people with expensive university degrees and low-income jobs (e.g., English majors, sociology, anthropology), such as in that Gawker series, so many of the people say that can’t get a good job, so they’re going to go to graduate school. From my perspective, they seem to be throwing good money after bad and investing even more years of their lives. On the other hand, if a person has already spent four years in contemporary literature or whatever, it’s difficult to say that they need to throw away all that effort and start over. I don’t see a good solution.

Here in Australia, university education used to be free back in the 70s. I don’t think it worked out well, since many of the students simply stayed in school (e.g., taking 10 years working on a poetry degree). The country eventually couldn’t sustain it financially and students had to start paying for it again.

@WayDownSouth Maybe undergrad should be free but you have to pay for grad?

I have yelled at the radio while running. I think it scares the other pedestrians – especially when the sun hasn’t come up yet. But sometimes, Morning Edition reports things that make me so ~feely~; and my heart rate’s already up, so what are you gonna do?

But, um, about the actual story: At what point after graduation are they looking at students’ earnings? Because I feel like taking out even more loans to get the advanced degree required for life in most fields is hard to properly assess…

BananaPeel (#1,555)

no no no no no no no

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

Socialism isn’t free. It’s the very opposite of free in so many ways.

Meaghano (#529)

@WayDownSouth That was just for you!

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Meaghano Very well done :)

Markovaa (#1,509)

From what I understand, these proposed ideas are targeted at For-profit colleges–not private liberal art schools or smaller state schools. For-profit colleges churn out graduates at very fast rates who receive degrees that are basically meaningless. They are mostly funded by federal loans. Its a terrible system.

@Markovaa If that’s true then I think it’s a great policy, and badly needed.

This proposal is completely terrible. There’s already a college accrediting system in place, and while it has it’s problems, it at least emphasizes learning. You know, what colleges are actually supposed to be doing, not churning out financiers over k-12 teachers, or doctors over nurses.
I’ve already witnessed the corrosive effect fixation on graduation rates can have on learning standards; it seems like this would only deepen the problem.

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