02/21/2013 11:26 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

The Value Beyond the College Scorecard


In his State of the Union Address, President Obama took the unusual step of commenting on the need for rethinking accreditation. He also touted the creation of a College Scorecard. The Scorecard would create benchmarks -- a low cost of attendance, high graduation rates, high employment rates, and high salaries -- by which consumers would measure colleges and universities.

This second issue -- the College Scorecard -- goes directly to American's perceptions of the value of higher education.

As the ground continues to shift underneath, most of us who work or think about higher education understand that changes are coming. It's something like my argument last week to candidates for admission to make their final choice on a college or university because they know when they feel it. The climate for higher education feels different these days. We understand that the way students learn and the value they place on that learning is often changing faster than the changes we are making to their educational programs. Most of us also agree that as education evolves, no one individual, or for that matter the federal government, possesses a crystal ball that permits all of us to see how this evolution will play out.

Education will adjust. History supports this point. If not, most of us working in the field would be educating clergy who were classically trained in Greek and Latin -- not bad by itself but insufficient alone to prepare a global workforce in the 21st century. We got it then and we get it now.

How students achieve access, follow a route determined by circumstance, readiness, age, maturity and interest, and emerge not only as productive workers but educated citizens should be the goal established for American society. It's not that the economic indicators don't matter or that we can't support a College Scorecard. We can. Accountability done well and presented reasonably is usually a good thing. But if the Department of Education is proposing to issue a Scorecard, it had best stand ready to answer how it shaped the marketing program that educated American consumers on its use.

In the end, is education principally about the best deal out there? Is it really a transaction that can be reduced to metrics whose applicability and level of appropriateness varies widely within a diverse higher education system where students seek access at different times in different ways for different reasons?

One of the reasons that I went into education is because I admired my father. When my immigrant grandfather died suddenly in the middle of the Depression, my father returned home, became a postal carrier, and put aside his dreams to teach high school. War, marriage and children compounded to limit his choice. I can remember him returning to night school to finish his degree, taking a drastic salary drop, and working extra jobs to follow his aspirations to become a teacher, despite four children to feed and educate as he turned 40. As much as I respected my father, I admired my mother even more who stood by him when his family questioned his sanity as she returned to work as a secretary to help make ends meet.

They knew that sacrifices were ahead as their children headed to college. Yet they also believed in the American dream even if the employment prospects looked difficult in a field that paid far less than the one my father left. John Kennedy would say it best a few years later when he asked what each of us could do for our country.

What my father did -- like so many other returning G.I's -- was good for him, his family and the country. Would his decision make sense if he had first checked the College Scorecard? Would the country have been better off without one less dedicated teacher who could inspire by example his own children to follow a similar path?

Sticker price -- roughly equivalent to purchasing a new luxury car annually at high priced institutions -- has always been a problem when thinking about how to create access. The College Scorecard will help highlight the high costs associated with an industry that is labor, land and technology intensive. It's not necessarily a bad idea. In fact, technology is opening new possibilities by changing the way that people, programs, and facilities relate to one another in the educational process. The tragedy will be if the College Scorecard diminishes access and choice to a ratings game where the end decision is a purely financial one.

At it most fundamental, access is about need and aspiration, and shaped by individuality and nuance. We need a trained workforce. But we need an educated citizenry even more. The two are different but happily not mutually exclusive. In the final score, I hope we judge the ratings game by whether the first generation of college educated like my father would take pride in an educational system that prepares STEM graduates for industry -- and teaching.