11/27/2013 02:22 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

The Challenge of Defining Value

In August 2013 President Obama announced a plan with three goals:
  • Increase access to higher education.
  • Make college more affordable.
  • Improve student outcomes.
One striking feature of his proposal is the development and publication of a public rating system of colleges and universities. The rating system is intended to help prospective students and their families determine which institution provides "the best value." The time frame for implementing the rating system is ambitious: the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) wants "Version 1.0" up and running by January 1, 2015.

Why is this rating system attracting attention? Once it is public, the President has proposed linking the assessed value of an institution to the receipt of federal student aid; those colleges offering the best value would presumably receive a larger share of taxpayer funding.

Many in the higher education community agree with key components of the plan. The plan seeks transparency; the higher education community has already embraced a Web-based tool, U-CAN, that provides easily-accessible information to prospective students on private colleges and universities. College completion is a pressing goal in the plan; our community knows that too many students nationwide are failing to complete degree programs on time or at all and that more targeted advising and support are needed for these at-risk students. Measures are set forth in the plan to increase access to higher education; the higher education community applauds such programs which increase access, such as the Federal Perkins Loan Program and the American Opportunity Tax Credit. The plan sets forth initiatives to keep college affordable; our community is acutely aware of public concern about student debt and most institutions have introduced significant measures to reduce costs. Finally, the plan calls for more innovation; colleges across the nation continue to experiment with cutting-edge practices.

However, many of us share a concern: How will the "value" of college be measured and, if tied to federal student aid support, will there be real and profound negative consequences for many students, higher education institutions and society? Let's look at just a few concerns about some of the criteria under consideration.

Institutional graduation and transfer rates may be considered. If completion rate is given significant weight, will those institutions that serve low-income students and enroll more students with academic challenges be financially punished? Will institutions turn away more students at risk for dropping out in favor of those more likely to finish degree programs? Due to student demographics, many community colleges have historically had lower completion rates than other institutions. If community colleges are penalized for lower completion rates with less student aid, will geographically-restricted students be able to continue their education in a "better value" program further from where they live and work? At present, the federal graduation rate counts only first-time, full-time students. Due to data limitations, a significant portion of the student population -- transfer students -- cannot be factored into consideration in the rating system.

What a graduate earns has been proposed as a way to measure value. If graduate earnings determine the level of institutional support, will students be advised to enter higher-earning professions (engineering or business) over lower-paying professions (teaching or social work)? When should earnings be measured: Six months after graduation? At the midpoint in one's career? Or, after a lifetime?

Percentage of students pursuing advanced degrees is a third proposed criterion. If included, what impact will it have on degree programs that enable students to enter the workforce without advanced degrees?

Finally, if the cost of the degree program is considered, will institutions offering more expensive programs requiring one-on-one instruction (music) or expensive equipment and lab space (engineering) be disadvantaged?

And, there is the issue of who should determine the value of a degree. Should we ask students to assess the value? Traditionally-aged students may have different educational goals than adult learners. Will the value of a degree be different for a first-generation college student or for a student from a family boasting a long line of college graduates? Moreover, those in higher education may have their own set of goals for students that go beyond the specific benefits of a degree program, such as helping them become informed and contributing citizens, broadly educated and able to function effectively in a diverse, global environment.

Increasing the value of our higher education system is a worthy enterprise. While many features of the proposed plan make sense, some measures under consideration to define the value of a college are unsettling. The USDE has been on the road since August seeking feedback on the President's plan and has conducted a series of public forums to gather input. Due to the significance of this initiative, the higher education community needs to become fully engaged now in these discussions, give voice to any concerns and help craft a workable solution to meet the President's goals. The USDE invites feedback by attending public forums or via e-mail to