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College Scorecards and the Liberal Arts

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President Obama's proposal to create a college scorecard -- a scorecard that might be used to determine institutional eligibility for federal financial support -- has elicited an overwhelmingly negative response from the higher education community, especially small, independent, non-profit institutions. David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, wrote to the Obama administration to say that:

Private, independent college leaders do not believe it is possible to create a single metric that can successfully compare the broad array of American higher education institutions without creating serious unintended consequences.

And the New American Colleges and Universities, which includes the University of Evansville, my own institution, concluded in a letter to the U.S. Department of Education that "a college rating system is a fundamentally flawed way to assess institutional value or worth."

Why the strong reaction? Writing on behalf of the twenty-one NAC&U member institutions, president Mark Heckler argued that such ratings simply cannot adequately reflect the diversity of American colleges and universities, which vary substantially with respect to mission, size, demography, curriculum and so on. Indeed, one can explain a good deal of the variation in completion rates, student debt and default rates -- all measures suggested for inclusion in the college scorecard -- solely on the basis of student demographics, such as family financial resources and the number of first-generation students at the institution. Many different types of colleges and universities serve many different types of students, which is a distinctive strength of American higher education.

Especially troubling is the assumption that the earning power of our graduates is a valid measure of institutional quality. Small, independent institutions prepare graduates in numbers disproportionate to their size for vocations such as teaching, social work, criminal justice, the ministry and nursing -- all of which profoundly serve the common good. Penalizing our institutions for producing such public-spirited graduates is bad public policy. Moreover, this metric creates truly perverse incentives for colleges and universities, since they are less likely to encourage and support students whose otherwise admirable career goals lead them to less lucrative occupations.

We should also understand that a rating system that rewards colleges and universities that enroll a relatively large number of students from wealthier families - and thus, statistically, higher probabilities of academic success -- will discourage institutions from recruiting and accepting students who arguably have the most to gain from going to college. At least one university president, in an off-the-record interview with Insidehighered.com, has said that the institution's admissions standards will change so that it won't be hurt by lower graduation rates that would result from enrolling a substantial number of students from first generation and low income families. President Obama is right to emphasize greater access to college for historically underserved populations, but this is not the way to achieve that goal.

But concerns about a college rating system go well beyond these specific issues.

The college scorecard discussion seems grounded in a fundamental lack of confidence in America's colleges and universities, particularly those whose missions are to educate students in the liberal arts and sciences. The stereotype of the liberal arts graduate as someone who can't get a good job, whose life prospects are diminished by earning a degree with no relevance for the "real world," must be shown for what it is -- a dangerous and misleading myth. Those of us at smaller institutions see every day the remarkable impact of an education built on the foundation of the liberal arts and sciences -- not just during their time at our colleges but in their success after graduation. At the University of Evansville, for example, a recent survey of graduates in the class of 2012 -- with a response rate of 87 percent -- demonstrated that 92 percent had a job (with a median salary of $42,500) or were in graduate school within six months after leaving UE. And multiple studies continue to document the powerful impact of a college degree. Just the most recent is a report from the Pew Research Center showing that today's 25-to-32 year olds with a bachelor's degree earn $17,500 more annually than those with only a high school diploma. Significantly, this "college premium" is even greater today than it was for the Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers when they were the same age.

Liberal arts institutions must be creative and open to new ideas, including online education, experiential learning, and other innovative approaches that can be complementary to what we do in an on-campus environment committed to intense personal interaction and mentoring. But the best way to meet the challenges facing higher education today is not scorecards or threats of reduced federal funding. We must recognize that education is about more than preparing for vocation -- indeed, the public interest demands that our institutions prepare young men and women to lead lives dedicated not only to personal gain but to the good of the greater community. It is time for American colleges and universities committed to the liberal arts to assert ourselves in defense of a time-tested educational ideal that well serves students and the nation as a whole.