Looking at the President's Plan for Higher Education

08/29/2013 10:55 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2013

Each year, millions of students are faced with the decision of choosing if they should attend college and, if so, which to attend. Some strive to follow the family legacy, going to the institution that their family has attended for generations. Others find themselves filling out applications alone, as no one in their family had ever attended or completed a higher education degree. Whatever the situation, the majority of students apply to an institution of higher learning in pursuit of a better life -- one that teaches, trains and prepares them for that greatly likelihood of professional and personal success.

But how, as educators and leaders of these institutions, can we ensure that we are providing our new and current students with these experiences and these post graduation opportunities? As announced earlier this week, President Obama plans for the U.S. Department of Education to develop a system for rating colleges based on outcomes achieved by the students they enroll. On first glance, this seems most reasonable. But, upon further review, these efforts come with concerns and challenges. As critics cite, the devil is in the details and the details in this scenario appear to be numerous indeed.

An area of concern for many colleges and universities nationwide has to do with degree completion. The confusion lies in how one "counts" a student degree seeking and completion. For example, let's take a student who begins her college career at a community college, withdraws before earning her associate degree, and later transfers and graduates from a four-year institution from which she earns a bachelor's degree? Who is considered the "failure" institution in that scenario? The community college helped prepare her for the next academic level in her life, despite her not completing her degree there. If, under the new plan, the community colleges are considered less successful due to having more transfers than associates-degree graduates, they will be penalized by receiving less federal scholarship and grant funding (Pell Grant funding).

What I find most interesting is -- if institutions report few students completing degrees at that institution and are thus penalized by received less federal financial aid and scholarship funding, particularly at the community college level, even a few hundred dollars could make the difference between a student enrolling for another semester or "dropping out" of school altogether.

Without carefully tracking each and every individual college student, even if they did not finish a degree well into adulthood, by say, their social security number, there is no way to assess the personal value of attending college. And, not all colleges can provide the same return on investment as other colleges in regard to careers and what professions students pursue. This will logically translate to professions of choice.

For example, K-12 teachers and counselors will make less money than engineers and doctors -- the salary they earn though -- cannot measure how fulfilled the student is with their chosen career. How can we measure one's experiences or fulfillment with salary charts and graphs? While I believe higher education presidents at two- or four-year institutions of higher education -- both public and private -- are willing to stand with President Obama in regard to his goals, many of us are having discussions within our own senior advisors and campus communities asking, "how can we apply one formula to all institutions and all professions?"

Aligned with President Obama's goals to provide higher education access, degree completion, and professional success, I believe there are ways to better serve families and students and help them thoughtfully determine whether the cost of attending college is worth the investment. This would start with prospective college students asking the simple question: "What is the likelihood that a student like me will graduate from your institution?"

The University of La Verne, as does almost every other institution, is required to record the retention and completion rates of all students. Generally speaking, institutions of higher education can provide data based on high-school grade point average, SAT or ACT scores, gender, race, ethnicity, eligibility for state and federal financial aid, intended academic major and home neighborhood by zip code. Additionally, numerous web sites allow students to calculate the return on the investment in college costs and in years of sacrificed income while in school as well as a projected estimated lifetime income. Students and their parents, who are looking to make a decision about which institution best suits their family, should know these data exist and should not hesitate to ask to see it. Most of these data are available on their website and in their literature.

And, it is certainly a two-way street. Institutions need to invest more time and personnel in monitoring what happens to alumni -- both those who complete their degrees at the institution as well as those who do not. While it is impracticable for any college to track every alumni, modern surveying techniques make it quite feasible to develop statistically reliable data for alumni outcomes 5, 10 and 25 years after they have left the institution.

Tracking what happens to our alumni is key and also is an area where institutions of higher education across the nation need to be more focused and reliable. It is up to us, as the leaders of these institutions to step forward and identify systems and infrastructure to help meet the goals and aspirations that President Obama has set forth.