08/30/2013 04:38 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

Opportunity and Accountability Now

President Obama rightly calls for a system that ranks colleges in terms of value -- bang for the buck. Graduation rates, post-graduation employment rates, and loan repayment rates are crucial metrics for all schools, and we should make this data widely available. Beyond this, however, one size does not fit all. A federally developed ranking system must avoid unhelpfully perpetuating the fiction of comparability across schools and must focus on return on investment.

"Return on investment" is a better term than "value," (the word used in the President's speech) because it more accurately reflects how students think about college and it will encourage us to collect extensive longitudinal data about our graduates, a difficult task but one made feasible by new technologies.

The president's personal experience indicates why this is so important. He and the first lady incurred a "mountain" of debt, but they also graduated from Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard Law School. Their risk was lower (these schools have high graduation rates) and their return on investment was likely greater than many couples who graduate with comparable debt and the same degrees, but from other institutions.

Here I speak as president of Davidson College that, like the undergraduate institutions the Obamas attended, has a high sticker price, practices need-blind admission, and meets demonstrated financial need for all students. Davidson seeks out talented students irrespective of their financial circumstances who overwhelmingly graduate, get jobs, and repay any debt they incur. The Davidson graduates whom I have met state that Davidson was worth the investment and their ties to the institution remain strong.

Colleges like Davidson that succeed on the crucial metrics (graduation rates, employment track record, and debt repayment) can perhaps best serve our nation's educational imperatives by tackling other compelling challenges. Given our shared goals of access and affordability, here are three things we can do now.

I. Overhaul recruiting and admissions to address the "mismatch" challenge. According to recent research, many high achieving students of color and students from low-income families do not attend or even apply to highly selective colleges, even though these colleges may offer greater opportunity, better financial aid, and a greater return on investment. Davidson collaborates with schools and community-based organizations (CBOs) to identify and mentor such high achieving students so that they enroll in a school suited to their aspirations, but all of us have more work to do.

For example, some evidence suggests that attributes (like resilience) not evaluated in traditional admissions criteria are crucial for success. And, because institutions differ, these success indicators may vary somewhat from college to college. Schools like Davidson must study what attributes predict success on our campuses and for whom we can add the most value. We must then overhaul our recruiting and admissions practices in light of this research. We will know nationally that we are making progress in addressing the mismatch challenge when each college defines distinctive admissions criteria that reflect its specific mission, culture, and return on investment.

II. Collaborate systematically to build a stronger bridge between K-12 and higher education. College professors can provide content-rich professional development for high school teachers that renews them intellectually and enables them to better prepare their students for more advanced study. College students can mentor high school kids, providing tutoring, intellectual engagement, advice on applying to college, and an example of what success can look like. Institutions like Davidson can work with public and charter schools to develop innovative, proven curricula in core subjects. Strong, multi-dimensional partnerships like these can enrich the lives of everyone who participates while also smoothing the transition to college for students.

III. Develop technologies that improve learning on our campuses and increase access to education. Successful colleges -- schools with high graduation rates, high employment rates, and low default rates -- must lead in developing tools that enhance learning, expand access, and reduce costs. Such tools include everything from lecture capture to adaptive learning technologies to MOOCs. New technologies can help us to reach more students worldwide, to collaborate with geographically distant institutions, to learn more about how each student learns and thus to tailor instruction more effectively, to strengthen alumni and career networks for graduates, to communicate with prospective students and potentially to prepare incoming international students for life and study in the United States. If we share what we learn, we may collectively contribute significantly to reducing costs and improving outcomes for students everywhere.

By doing these three things, colleges and universities demonstrate our commitment to addressing urgent challenges now facing our country, thereby living up to our obligation to serve not just our own students, but the broader society that supports us. Davidson welcomes partners in this collective effort.