In his 2014 State of the Union Address in January, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his intention to hold U.S. colleges and universities accountable for quality and affordability. As a result, higher education institutions can expect more media dialogue and governmental scrutiny
in the months to come. In an effort to clarify the issues, President Tracy Fitzsimmons, Ph.D., offers her perspective on the college ratings system proposed by the Obama Administration. Dr. Fitzsimmons currently serves as chair of the board of directors of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU).
Q: What are the facets of the federal government’s proposed college ratings system?
A: President Obama recently proposed a new college ratings system — set to be released before the 2015-16 academic year. According to the White House, the ratings system will “help students compare the value offered by colleges and encourage colleges to improve.” The ratings system is expected to focus upon such measures as percentage of students receiving Pell Grants; average tuition, scholarships and loan debt; graduation and transfer rates; graduate earnings and advanced degrees of college graduates. President Obama also indicated he will seek legislation to allocate federal financial aid based on the ratings system by the year 2018. According to the White House, “Students can continue to choose whichever college they want, but taxpayer dollars will be steered toward high-performing colleges that provide the best value.”
Q: How would a system like this affect higher education in the United States?
A: A federal ratings system could penalize those academic institutions and programs that graduate students into professions such as teaching and nonprofit work — professions that inherently focus less on earning potential, but have an untold impact on society. Higher education is not about earning potential. It is about the quality of an education a student receives. The focus of the conversation must be rooted in quality. If we stray from that foundation, we run the risk of defining an education solely through the lens of economics instead of academics.
Q: What types of issues would be created by this rating system?
A: If a federal ratings system were put in place, perverse incentives would be created. College presidents and deans could be forced to make value decisions about the types of students they admit — and how they spend their money based upon trying to “game” the system and increase their rating, when in reality, all of our key decisions should be driven by what is best for student learning. The beauty of higher education in the United States is that each of our campuses is different. Each offers a unique and rewarding experience for students. Boiling those attributes down to a letter grade or a stamp anywhere between “excellent” and “poor” is a great disservice to all. Being educated broadly helps people become better citizens.
Q: What are you hearing from other college and university presidents on this issue?
A: I, along with many other presidents, feel the federal government is overstepping its bounds and becoming far too involved in higher education. We believe rating higher education institutions is not the role of the federal government. The proposed college ratings system is purported to be designed to contain the cost of tuition and boost the rate of graduation at colleges and universities throughout the nation. It should not be the role of the federal government to define what outcomes should be important to each family nor how to assess academic quality. The latter is the role of educators, who have already set the bar at a critically high level for each other through peer review and accreditation.
Q: Where does accreditation fit into this discussion?
A: We believe peer review through accreditation is better than government review, and responsibility for measuring and rating quality should remain in the hands of peer reviewers, who are better qualified and equipped to hold institutions to a higher standard. The U.S. higher education system is the strongest system in the world in terms of quality, interaction between students and professors, depth of research and a number of other factors. That is, in part, because we have a peer-review system of accreditation. We hold each other accountable, and there is no one who will push harder on quality in education. Instead of creating a new system driven by the federal government, we should put our efforts behind refining a peer-review system that has shown itself to be effective in continually improving higher education institutions.
What is NAICU?
The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) serves as the unified national voice of private nonprofit higher education. Since 1976, the association has represented this subset of American colleges and universities on policy issues with the federal government, such as those affecting student aid, taxation and government regulation. Today, through new communication technologies, an improved governance structure and increased member participation, NAICU has become an even more effective and respected participant in the political process.
The NAICU staff meets with policymakers, tracks campus trends, conducts research, analyzes higher education issues, publishes information, helps coordinate state-level activities and advises members of legislative and regulatory developments with potential impact on their institutions.
Q: What would a federally regulated ratings system mean for Shenandoah University?
A: No matter what happens with this college ratings system, Shenandoah University will continue to do what it has always done — focus on providing the best education and the most positive college experience to each and every one of our students. We will continue to make strides in our retention and graduation rates. We will guide students to find their academic passion and relentlessly pursue it. We will connect with students, over and over again, to keep them on the path to graduation. And, we will always strive to reach a bar that is higher than the federal government could ever hope to set.
Q: Where do we go from here?
A: This story is still developing. There are many unknowns, but one thing is for certain — if the quality issue isn’t broken, don’t try and fix it. If the problem is cost, students will simply not go to the more expensive colleges if they can’t afford it and don’t see value in it. But they’re still coming to college, because in the end, a student who has earned his or her bachelor’s degree will make $650,000 more over 40 years than someone with a high school degree.* We are committed to finding ways to work with the Department of Education to benefit students across the country, but we will continue to recognize that students and their parents choose colleges based upon a myriad of measurable and immeasurable factors that cannot possibly be boiled down to one simple ratings system.
In addition, NAICU has spearheaded several major public initiatives, such as the University & College Accountability Network (U-CAN), offering prospective students and their families concise and comparable information on private, nonprofit colleges and universities; the Student Aid Alliance, an ambitious effort to enhance funding for existing student aid programs; and the nonpartisan National Campus Voter Registration Project that, in every federal election, helps all colleges and universities to conduct both voter education, registration and participation programs.
With more than 1,000 members nationwide, NAICU reflects the diversity of private, nonprofit higher education in the United States. Members include traditional liberal arts colleges, major research universities, church- and faith- related institutions, historically black colleges and universities, women’s colleges, performing and visual arts institutions, two-year colleges, and schools of law, medicine, engineering, business and other professions. NAICU is committed to celebrating and protecting this diversity of the nation’s private colleges and universities.