09/04/2014 02:10 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

The Administration's College Ratings Plan: Accountability in Higher Education or a Bridge to Nowhere?

Liberal arts colleges are getting a bit of a bad rap these days for supposedly educating students without casting an eye to the job market. As the conventional wisdom would have it, colleges simply aren't doing enough to prepare their charges for life after graduation.

The conventional wisdom is often wrong, and it's especially off-base in this case. What's even more unfortunate is the Obama Administration's embrace of that error as it seeks to mandate a federal rating system for colleges and universities -- a sort of U.S. News & World Report mechanism with strings.

As New York Times reporter Michael D. Shear wrote in a front-page story in late May, "the rating system is in fact a radical new effort by the federal government to hold America's 7,000 colleges and universities accountable by injecting the executive branch into the business of helping prospective students weigh collegiate pros and cons. Mr. Obama and his aides say colleges and universities that receive a total of $150 billion each year in federal loans and grants must prove they are worth it. At too many schools, tuition is going up, graduation rates are going down, and students are leaving with enormous debt and little hope of high-paying jobs."

The President's plan would create a new rating system -- the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) -- that will determine which colleges and universities offer "best value," measured by educational access, affordability and outcomes. The plan, which is scheduled to be in place for the 2015-16 academic year, also recommends congressional legislation tying federal student aid to the "best value" ratings.

A few months ago, I attended the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in Washington, D.C. During the gathering, we took up the definition of "best value" within the context of graduates' salaries. AAC&U has since questioned whether PIRS will lead institutions to deny access to students who could eventually benefit from college but may take longer to complete their degrees. This is particularly true for students whose socioeconomic backgrounds would require them to have jobs to support their college education. Taking longer to finish a degree could be perceived as diminished value. PIRS will almost certainly reward institutions with multiple business, engineering, and technical programs, and penalize those that produce large numbers of teachers and public service workers.

As President of Woodbury University in the multi-ethnic Los Angeles area, I am committed to delivering quality higher education to deserving students in pursuit of their dreams. We started as a professional school. And we are building a much stronger liberal education component into our program because we seek to produce not only competent professionals, but also productive, socially responsible members of society. That seems to be the reverse of what many liberal arts colleges are doing now. A fair number are adding professional programs and perhaps looking over their shoulders at PIRS or something like it, even as we take steps to move in their direction without becoming a full-blown liberal arts institution.

Our university would figure to do well under a system like PIRS, given our focus on professional education and on ROI, an integral part of our internal metrics. Liberal arts colleges, at least on paper, would seem not to fare as well. And as a long-time examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, my professional bias is toward systems of measurement that can drive accountability and improve performance.

That's why my initial response to PIRS - extreme caution, bordering on skepticism - might at first blush appear counterintuitive, but bear with me. Let's accept the premise for the time being that the federal government should be involved in ranking universities, even though my belief is that such evaluations are properly the work of accreditation and peer review. But if we accept that premise, every university should just have its own balanced scorecard of performance measures that reflect its mission and be evaluated accordingly.

Ranking systems inherently tend toward "one size fits all" and that's precisely the problem. PIRS cannot work well for all universities because there's a diversity of missions among various institutions. Indeed, it's impossible to evaluate complex institutions fairly on the basis of only a few metrics -- graduation rate, loan default rates, etc. And once the system begins to measure average earnings of graduates, does it pay to study at this university, and so on, we're fundamentally neglecting other kinds of learning - life-changing kinds of learning -- that occur inside and outside the classroom.

In purely economic terms, all the data confirms that a college education is worth more today than it was a generation ago, and that the financial gap between those with and without degrees is widening. A case can be made that a college education is a public good, which can quickly lead to questions about declining government support for higher education. My hunch is that many colleges do not want education to be measured as a private good, in which case return on investment would actually be an appropriate measure. In my view, PIRS ought not to be viewed that narrowly.

In her book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, University of Chicago Professor Martha C. Nussbaum wrote: "Without people with a liberal arts background, the world would be filled with narrow, technically trained workers, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition and authority, and understand the significance of another person's sufferings and achievements." I agree with Prof. Nussbaum. The study of history and culture imparts the ability to approach global issues as a citizen of the world. The study of philosophy teaches the critical thinking skills that help us reason about our choices. Participation in the creative arts fosters an empathetic capacity and allows us to imagine the challenges facing someone unlike ourselves.

President Obama's plan is well intended, but virtually any measurement system the Administration or the Department of Education devises is likely to be deeply flawed. At bottom, colleges must be measured qualitatively as well as quantitatively, but the former introduces subjectivity into the mix. Will that fly?

The college admissions process does an admirable job of blending objective data with considered judgments by experienced gatekeepers. That system has evolved over time, through trial and error; even with the Common App, institutions have a great deal of latitude in assembling their cohorts. The college admissions process is both art and science. Could PIRS be implemented in a similar fashion? Will the Administration permit space for subjectivity and for the idiosyncratic nature of each institution?

How we resolve the issues around PIRS will tell us a great deal about our collective values and about whether we understand "best value" in the very largest sense of the term.

Luís María R. Calingo, PhD, is president of Woodbury University ( in Los Angeles and San Diego and author of the blog Reflections on Excellence.