If President Barack Obama gets his way, the annual U.S. News and World Report college rankings may soon have some competition from the federal government.
Following a bus tour that made stops at several Pennsylvania and New York college campuses last month, Obama has continued to push an ambitious set of proposals aimed at making higher education more accountable and affordable.
At the heart of the president’s plan is a controversial new institutional ratings system, in which the government would rank colleges using factors like affordability and graduates’ earnings, basing federal financial aid partly on those ratings.
The president’s agenda, geared largely toward public universities, community colleges and for-profit institutions, would likely have little impact on Penn and its peers in the Ivy League. But Penn professors and administrators are still taking notice.
“There’s a broad consensus in higher education that I share that affordability is extremely important, and that increasing graduation rates is also very important,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said. “I applaud the president’s focus on that.”
But Gutmann, like others, said she is concerned about some of the finer points of Obama’s agenda. Here, The Daily Pennsylvanian breaks down some of the president’s recent plans to reform American higher education.
Obama’s ratings recipe
The underlying goal of Obama’s proposed ratings system is to empower high school students and their families with more information in the college search process. The ratings would be determined by a host of factors, including tuition, graduation and transfer rates, debt and graduates’ earnings.
Under the new ratings system, students who choose to attend higher-rated colleges could obtain larger Pell Grants and more affordable loans. Obama has said that he hopes the ratings will be tied to federal financial aid starting in 2018.
Joni Finney, a Graduate School of Education professor who researches the public finance of higher education, said that the president’s plans would likely have no noticeable impact on Penn or on other private institutions that already have robust financial aid programs of their own. “The Ivy League isn’t where he’s trying to move the needle here,” she said.
An uphill battle ahead
Obama’s ratings proposal has caused consternation among many leaders in higher education. Gutmann, while supportive of the president’s big-picture focus on affordability, said she is skeptical of the plan to tie graduates’ salaries to federal financial aid.
“It’s fair to say that if an institution graduates students who don’t get jobs, there’s something wrong with what the institution is doing,” Gutmann said. “It’s also fair to say that getting jobs isn’t a sufficient measure of success, and certainly the salaries that students get right after they graduate isn’t a sufficient measure of the quality of an institution.”
Finney, the GSE professor, agreed that salaries are a poor metric to include in a federal ratings system. It would make more sense, she said, if the ratings looked at where students are five or ten years after earning their degree.
While the Obama administration is able to rate colleges on its own, linking the ratings to federal financial aid will require Congressional approval. Obama’s ratings system is likely to face an uphill battle in Congress, where Republicans have so far responded negatively to the president’s higher-education agenda.
“He’s really diagnosed the problem perfectly,” Finney said, “but he hasn’t yet brought in all the tools and support in Congress that will be necessary to push this through.”
A shortened law degree?
During a stop at the State University of New York at Binghamton last month, Obama also made waves by suggesting that it should take two years, not three, to earn a law degree.
In recent weeks, the president’s suggestion that law school should be pared down by a year as a way to reduce student debt has prompted a discipline-wide debate over degree completion time.
“The important part of the president’s comments was to raise the question of what you’re trying to accomplish in the third year of law school,” Edward Rock, a professor of business law at Penn’s Law School, said. “In that respect, it’s an important conversation to have.”
The threshold question, Rock said, is whether the same legal education should be required for students who are hoping to pursue the most demanding legal jobs versus those who plan to work in more laid-back, local practices. “Offhand,” he said, “there’s no particular reason to think that you need the same legal education for both.”
MOOCs and online learning
The president’s recent higher-education agenda also touches briefly on the role that MOOCs — massive open online courses — will play in the future.
Obama spoke briefly about MOOCs during an appearance at the University of Buffalo last month, saying that it will be important for colleges “to embrace innovative new ways to prepare our students for a 21st-century economy and maintain a high level of quality without breaking the bank.” He said that MOOCs, and online education in general, can be used in ways to help keep college costs down.
Last semester, Penn — which partners with Coursera, a leading MOOC provider — hosted an international conference that addressed the rapid growth of online education.
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