The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, proved to be a grand stage for the world’s best athletes. I was amazed to see skiers hurtle themselves down steep slopes, figure skaters time their jumps perfectly and ice hockey players work in tandem to move the puck quickly down the ice. The level of competition was high, so earning a medal was reason for applause.
For many years, the so-called competition to be among the top institutions of higher education in the nation has been one of words and select metrics as reported in U.S. News & World Report, The Princeton Review and other ratings. The widely cited U.S. News rankings reward colleges and universities that retain and graduate students, spend generously on academic programs, have more wealth and financial resources, attract highly qualified faculty and have strong peer review scores.
In a sense, the methodology makes sense if you simply were awarding bronze, silver or gold medals.
Unlike the Olympics, however, the playing field in academia is not level. Institutions with fewer resources that continue to provide personal attention to their students or that choose to accept students who have less preparation for college will likely fare poorly in the subjective areas of the ratings.
These colleges and universities prepare a diverse array of students for life, responsible citizenship and successful careers. And, as a result, they might be ranked as a “third-tier” institution. In recent years, a number of colleges and universities have refused to provide data in response to the recognition that a single metric does not accurately measure success.
It seems logical, and perhaps simultaneously nonsensical, that the federal government is planning to rate colleges based on selected data. One of the proposed metrics – earnings of a graduate one year after college – has been widely reported. Misericordia University graduates, for example, often choose careers in important fields such as teaching and social work that do not pay highly. We all want more good teachers and see the positive efforts of social workers, yet the federal rankings would penalize a college that does more to prepare graduates for those careers.
The proposed federal ratings system also would eliminate an entire segment of the student population. Students who transfer to a four-year college after attending a community college would not count on the federal scoreboard. For years, Misericordia has worked to ensure a smooth transition for students from the community college-level so they can earn their bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees here. It seems off-putting, in the spirit of placing a grade on higher education, that now we should tell those students they do not count.
A large part of what we do in higher education involves working to improve the lives of people. I certainly hope that the federal government would not downgrade a hospital for taking care of those who have lesser means or who have chronic health conditions. Our common ethos is built upon giving others a hand up, a chance, and playing the “game of life” in a way that is consistently fair to all.
Winning the rankings game would make more sense if we knew that the competition is open to all without hidden barriers. Higher education leaders are being asked to provide comments on how to make a federal metric better. For me, that is going to be incredibly difficult. The ratings system is being driven to preserve the reputations of the wealthiest institutions at the expense of smaller institutions that do not have the same resources. In the end, the federal government seems to be moving toward taking federal aid away from students and their families – where it belongs – and shifting it to institutions that are favored in the ranking criteria.
In the academy, we prize different viewpoints, especially ones that challenge our assumptions and current thinking so we can learn from it. I am hopeful that the continued discussion and debate about a federal rating system will enlighten me as to its purpose and appropriateness, especially as to how it will improve our ability to serve all students with improved educational opportunities and outcomes.