THE BLOG
09/07/2014 05:19 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2014

Perfect v. Good: Higher Ed Reform Edition

Government officials are spending quite a lot of time these days in a well-meaning quest to make higher education perfect. The continuous imposition of new and increasingly complicated regulations on colleges, as well as a new rating system, seems to arise from a deeply held belief that if only presidents, deans and administrators followed all of these rules, every collegian would flourish, graduate in a timely way, go off to a well-paying job, pay down all student loans with no worries, buy a home, raise a happy family, and look forward to a comfortable retirement.

If only Utopia were so easy! Perfection is remarkable idea coming from a government that includes the IRS, CIA, TSA, Healthcare.gov, and Congress.

Real life is notoriously imperfect. Somehow, this ill-conceived quest for perfection in higher education seems rooted in nostalgia for an outmoded collegiate ideal. Back in the day --- a time fondly remembered mostly by those who were not there --- colleges were largely bastions of the aristocracy, predominantly white and male, places where only the leisure class could afford to spend time not just because of tuition, but also because other regular people had to work. Not so for the scions of wealthy families who did not have to worry about getting jobs after graduation because the family business was just waiting for them to exit their adolescent years after college. College was pretty much perfect back then, at least in the rear-view-mirror view of some current policymakers.

We have Franklin D. Roosevelt and the G.I. Bill of 1944 to thank for triggering the paradigm shift that would change that 19th Century ideal of college completely --- although some colleges never really changed very much. The G.I. Bill made college a pathway for older students --- soldiers returning from World War II --- to re-enter the workforce by going to college to develop the skills necessary in the postwar economy. The G.I. Bill and subsequent federal and state legislation led to the creation of new and reorganized forms of colleges and universities, notably community colleges and universities serving large proportions of commuter students, working adults, professional students in very rigorous licensure programs, and even online education that has a large share of military personnel earning degrees.

This more egalitarian idea of the university opened gates for women, African American and Hispanic students in large numbers, including low income students who never would have gone to college before the creation of the student financial aid system. A more egalitarian university is not necessarily a more perfect place by the old rules, since so much human diversity brings with it so much more need for adaptation, creating a need for new rules and new data systems rather than simply layering the old ideas across the new populations.

Unfortunately, too many government officials have ignored these large changes across a much broader landscape of higher education, and instead, they continue to legislate and regulate as if all of college took place around the quad and in dorms populated mostly by 18-22 year old full-time students. The fact that such students are now less than 20% of all college enrollments does not seem to influence or calibrate public policy one iota.

The quest to make higher education perfect is really mostly about making the quads and the dorms completely risk-free for that minority of young adults whose behaviors create great risks, and whose lifetime earnings after college had better be enough to support the lifestyles to which they have long become accustomed.

We might ask what social good will ensue from so much time and effort spent trying to make college perfect, especially among the most traditional campuses. The spectre of creating an even more entitled class of college graduates, educated in a risk-free environment, should give even the most zealous rule-writer pause.

In the quest for perfection, much that is good about higher education is being damaged.

In order to justify the idea that college should be risk-free, the case must be made that college is a scary, dangerous, needlessly expensive and profoundly cynical experience that fails to deliver the promised results. Two of the signature features of current regulatory hyperactivity at the U.S. Department of Education have done a pretty good job of creating this particular strawman/scaryman image of higher education: the rules on campus sexual assault; and the proposed ratings system.

Certainly, protecting students from sexual assault and other forms of violence is an essential part of the responsibility of campus officials. True, some universities have done an awful job of living up to this responsibility. But the vast majority of colleges and universities have done the right thing all along without the federal government's bewildering web of regulatory traps. The underlying assumption that absent stringent federal regulation a college or university will ignore student safety is simply false.

Another example arises in the proposed new rating system for colleges and universities. Higher education is one industry with hundreds of different kinds of businesses within it. But the rating system will impose a template of measurements that will, invariably, misrepresent the variances and diversity of types of institutions and the students we serve. Administration officials have said that they are working to avoid this problem, but the danger remains because the federal government thus far seems to have a woefully imperfect grasp on the broad range of higher education providers and types of students attending.

The Obama Administration has said that one purpose of the rating system is to call out institutions ("shame" seems to be a favorite word of Obama Administration officials when it comes to educational regulation) that are expensive and thus do not serve low income students well. We might ask why the government thinks that certain private institutions with high tuitions must serve low income students when that might not be their mission, and why, therefore, the ratings will be designed to "shame" them. (I keep wondering if any Ivy League school will even notice the little beadle chasing after them waving a ratings flag while shouting, "Shame! Shame!")

But because the rating system will also consider completion rates and jobs data, schools that actually do serve a large proportion of low income students like my university, Trinity in Washington, will run the risk of faring quite poorly in the rating system since low income students have different attendance patterns than more traditional students. And, because we serve mostly women, the pay outcomes will certainly not be comparable to, say, MIT's outcomes. (Is my concern fair? PayScale, an organization that seems to be in play for the rating system, has already published salary data that mocks women's colleges for scoring lower than other schools, making no mention of the well-known problem --- a social imperfection! --- of pay equity). We would do better in the ratings system if we had fewer women and fewer low income students --- Trinity won't, we love our mission despite the risks --- but a fact that will surely lead some institutions to reinforce their drawbridges against the masses, just as some did to improve their retention rates for the U.S. News beauty contest.

Speaking of imperfection, the federal government's data system for higher education, known to insiders as IPEDS (the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) is notorious for its flaws. In the quest for perfection, imposing a rating system based on imperfect data is what's truly shameful.

With just two years remaining on its tenure, the Obama Administration might consider, with a touch of humility, stepping back from the quest for perfection in higher education to ask what is truly important to achieve. Yes, accountability for the considerable investment of tax dollars in student financial aid is very important, and we do not shrink from the idea that a public accounting goes with the territory. But the exercise of accountability must be appropriately calibrated to the type of institution, type of students served, degrees of difficulty and difference in those characteristics.

In the same way, respecting and encouraging what's good about the work of the people who have devoted their lives to higher education would be a refreshing message from an administration that, too often, seems to confuse the impulse to shame and berate with good governance. It's not. So much constant criticism has the net effect of discouraging the very people who are doing some of the best work teaching the hardest students.

Perfection, like salvation, is a worthy goal to keep us trying to be better every day. But in its quest for perfection in higher education, the government must beware of its tendency to ruin what is good in the strangling thicket of over-regulation and constant criticism.