Dissenting Voices You Wouldn’t Expect

Last August, the Obama administration floated the idea of a federal college rating system. The basic idea is to reward colleges that score well in the metrics of the system by allowing students who enroll in them to receive larger Pell grants. Conversely, colleges that scored poorly would only be eligible for smaller Pell grants.

The concept of the plan was to judge colleges based on how much value they seem to provide, both for students and taxpayers. Metrics of the plan would include such outcomes as graduation rates and the earnings of graduates, and measures of affordability and access for lower-income students. The goal would be to create incentives for colleges and universities to improve with respect to the ratings and thereby lower the cost of college while increasing its value.

At the time, the president wrote that he anticipated that the plan “won’t be popular with everyone—including some who’ve made higher education their business.”

That prophecy is turning out to be very accurate.

One skeptic is Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a deep-dyed liberal. At a hearing before his Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the senator observed a crucial flaw in the ratings idea, namely that colleges are not monolithic, but instead have a variety of programs, some good, some poor. What if a school has some strong programs that are weighed down by a host of weak ones? That possibility was something, Harkin said, “I had not thought about before.”

Good point. If we rate entire colleges and penalize those that do poorly overall because of low graduation rates and low earnings, isn’t that unfair and harmful to students who are pursuing one of the majors (or perhaps the only one) where most of the students are motivated, learn useful skills, graduate, and find good jobs?

Bravo to Senator Harkin for breaking out of the standard liberal mode of thinking in terms of aggregates and instead looking at the more complex reality.

Obama’s plan is also very unpopular among college and university presidents. Gallup and Inside Higher Ed did a poll of them in December and found that just 16 percent agreed or strongly agreed that it was a good idea to link financial aid to an institution’s performance on the rating system, while 30 percent disagreed and 35 percent strongly disagreed. (That was just one of the questions, but the plan did quite poorly on all of them. Read more in this Inside Higher Ed piece.)

By far the most intriguing criticism I have seen of the Obama administration plan, however, was written by Vinton Thompson, president of Metropolitan College of New York.

Writing in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Thompson, argues that the rating scheme would have terribly adverse effects on many small colleges that largely serve minority populations. He calls it “perhaps the worst idea ever put forward for higher education by a sitting president.”

Strong words indeed, but he backs them up with an historical parallel.

Thompson compares the proposed Obama system with the Flexner Report of 1910, which evaluated medical schools in operation in the U.S.

Abraham Flexner (who had no medical training himself) was commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation in 1908 to do an analysis of medical education in the U.S.

Flexner showed that quite a few of the medical schools at the turn of that century were rather shabby, especially those that offered medical education to blacks, women, and working-class people. His core belief was that the nation would be better off with fewer medical schools and fewer doctors, but those doctors we did have should undergo more lengthy training than was given at many institutions.

The elitists who ran the American Medical Association used the report to pressure state licensing agencies to eliminate “substandard” schools. The scythe of Flexner cut down the number of medical schools and enrollments dramatically by 1920. (For an excellent discussion of the story behind the Flexner Report, I recommend Martin Morse Wooster’s book Great Philanthropic Mistakes.)

High standards are fine, but there is an inevitable trade-off when we insist that only institutions able to meet them are to be permitted. Schools that provided some useful training, even if not ideal, were better than nothing for students who could not afford and couldn’t get into the “good” schools. And having a doctor who had some training, even if not perfect, was better than no doctor at all for many poor people.

Thompson worries with good justification that the rating system Obama has proposed will have the same sort of impact on low-budget colleges that offer an opportunity to poorer, academically marginal students, that the Flexner Report had on the lower-tier medical schools a century ago.

He writes, “The danger is that, as in the Flexner episode, the remedy proposed to cure these ills will inadvertently disadvantage or even eradicate the very institutions that have done the most over the years to serve marginalized populations historically excluded from higher education.”

Our higher education system is much like our healthcare system. It is full of problems due to decades of government interference. Fortunately, some people like Senator Tom Harkin and President Vinton Thompson are figuring out that a big, new dose of government regulation in higher education could make matters worse, not better.

That is a great educational advance in itself.