The U.S. Department of Education’s own comments on its draft of a document to establish a federal government rating system for colleges succinctly state the problems — in our view insuperable — with the whole enterprise.
“Many of the factors that contribute to a high quality postsecondary education are intangible,” not measured by numerical data, or by available data. “Among these are learning outcomes,” which “vary widely across programs and institutions and are communicated in many different ways.”
President Obama instructed the department to develop a system that would recognize colleges that excel at enrolling students from all backgrounds, focus on maintaining affordability and succeed in helping all students graduate within a reasonable amount of time. The department plans to consider two-year and four-year institutions separately, sorting each group into the high-performing, the low-performing and those in the middle.
Among the criteria on which the department seeks public comment are three on family income or socioeconomic status, two on cost of attendance, employment and earnings of graduates, graduate school attendance and loan repayment rates.
Under any system of numerical ratings institutions may try to make the numbers look favorable. Graduation rates too low? Ease up on grading standards. (There’s been enough of that already.)
Without details, the department said it was “considering accounting for differences in institutional characteristics such as degree and program mix and selectivity.”
There’s the rub. Harvard, MIT, Holy Cross, Hampshire, Salem State, Smith, the Boston Museum School, the Berklee College of Music and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy are hugely different. The handful of colleges like Harvard that can admit students without regard to need will present further important differences from those that can’t.
All things considered, the department must devote more thought to the task before it.
— Boston Herald,