09/20/2013 12:56 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2013

Will New Federal Ratings of Colleges and Universities Help or Hurt?

The Obama Administration recently proposed that the federal government rate colleges and universities based on access, affordability, and outcomes. However well-intentioned, the proposal could hurt the very institutions that excel in all three categories.

I say that having served as the leader of Rutgers University in Newark, ranked by U.S. News as America's most diverse national campus, and top-ranked in other surveys in terms of best bang for the buck. You'd think, then, I might favor the Administration's proposal in providing students and their parents a new metric of evaluation. It certainly sounds reasonable and hard to criticize.

But here's the problem: The realities of our students' lives do not necessarily match the parameters of the ratings.

Consider the graduation rate at universities, which the new federal ratings propose to use. Many colleges and universities, including ours, have a strong focus on increasing the number of students who successfully complete their chosen degree program. Yet how the graduation rate is currently calculated is problematic for such institutions.

First, fully half of the undergraduate students who successfully graduate from our campus are not counted in the six-year graduation rate calculation commonly employed. That is because these undergraduates transferred to our institution from another, many coming from community college. Only students who started as first-year students are counted in the current calculation of graduation rate. Given the high cost of a college education today, an increasing number of students choose to start their undergraduate career at the less expensive and locally accessible community college while living at home. The graduation rate calculation needs to include successful graduation of transfer students.

Second, graduation rate can be influenced by the background of the student upon matriculation to university. Students coming from high schools without AP classes have, through no fault of their own, a longer journey to graduation than do students arriving from privileged backgrounds. Colleges and universities that provide the support and training necessary for those students to successfully complete their programs of study should not be penalized relative to institutions that take in more privileged students who do not need as much support to attain their educational goals. The graduation rate calculation needs to measure how far a college or university has taken a student (from matriculation to graduation), not just whether the student graduated.

Third, six-year graduation rates do not count, of course, students who graduate after an educational program that takes them longer than six years. Why is that an issue? Many of the undergraduates at our institution and at other like-minded institutions come from economically difficult circumstances. They have to work to support themselves, sometimes their families, and to pay for their education. They cannot therefore take on a full load of courses every year. Necessarily their time to graduation will be longer than a full-time student who may also work, but not have the same financial burdens and therefore not have to work as intensively while going to school. The graduation rate calculation needs to account for students who eventually are able to complete their degrees, against steep odds, while preserving the incentive for full-time students to complete their work in a timely fashion.

The graduation rate is an important concept in the evaluation of the effectiveness of colleges and universities in serving their students. However, simplistically applied, this rating will lead to distortions in higher education, damaging those institutions dedicated to access.