I immediately tensed up when President Obama announced the creation of the New College Scorecard during his 2013 State of the Union address. The president said,
“So tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. And tomorrow, my administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria — where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”
Why did I shudder when I heard this? Because it is, once again, an attempt to turn education into yet another product for consumer consumption, rather than an interactive experience that depends just as much on what the student puts into it as what the college or university provides. It’s another manifestation of the “student as customer” paradigm, and that can mean trouble for educators and students who are more concerned about educational quality than what a simple price tag can guarantee. And I think that making financial considerations the primary focus of the college choice is a huge mistake.
Criticisms of the College Scorecard
I’m not the only person worried about this. As Kevin Kiley pointed out on InsideHigherEd.com, that very emphasis on “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck” is “too simple and too focused on finance.” He wrote,
“After the White House unveiled the new scorecard Wednesday, some educators quickly expressed reservations that the tool presented an oversimplified view of the college-selection process focused exclusively on the short-term financial ramifications of a degree. In particular, the concerns are coming from institutions and organization that promote a liberal arts education rather than job-specific training, whose leaders worry that the lack of other information could potentially lead to students and parents making bad decisions.”
On Reason.com, Ira Stoll explained that the emphasis on the financial aspects of the college choice decision disturbed him:
“What I found most striking about the federal college scorecard was the narrowly vocational focus. ‘Knowledge and skills for the jobs of the future,’ is the way the White House Web site puts it. The final item on the scorecard for Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., for Kaplan University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and for just about every other university I checked is ‘employment,’ and reports that ‘the U.S. Department of Education is working to provide information about the average earnings of former undergraduate students at [name of university] who borrowed Federal student loans.’
I have yet another concern: I think that many schools may present false or inflated data to look better on the scorecard. In my experience working at one very bad for-profit college, the emphasis on retention in order to boost graduation rates resulted in significant institutional corruption. The administrators changed final grades without notifying instructors, to keep students enrolled, and students known to have plagiarized throughout entire courses, and in fact their entire degree program, were awarded degrees. A former employee has accused Education Management Company (EDMC), one of the largest for-profit online college providers, of manipulating employment data in order to inflate their record of placing graduates in jobs.
It isn’t just for-profit colleges that have done this: last year, the non-profit Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego was found to have falsified post-graduation employment data. The president of Emory University also recently announced that for years employees at the college presented false data on students’ academic scores to improve their reputation and rankings, thereby making the college more attractive to potential students.
Given all of this, it’s possible that the College Scorecard, in emphasizing graduation rates, employment figures, and academic scores, may have disastrous consequences for academic standards. It may open the door to more corruption, as schools scramble to come up with data that makes them look more attractive-and put pressure on professors and administrators to lower standards so that they have higher success rates in those areas deemed most valuable on the scorecard.
What Should Matter in the College Choice Decision?
But should financial and job placement data even be the main criteria for determining which college is right for you? Of course the financial aspects are important-so important that they may bethe sole determining factor for many people in even being able to go to college at all. But immediate financial concerns should only be one factor in a complex matrix of considerations that must be individual for each student. For example, I know a student who is planning on going to medical school to uphold a family tradition and have a high income. But he hates science and loves the arts. The decision to attend medical school may end up costing him more in terms of life satisfaction-not to mention the potential monetary loss and legal liability that might come into play if he makes any mistakes as a physician.
That’s an extreme example. But it serves to illustrate the larger point: the College Scorecard is shortsighted. It does not recognize that many life conditions may make the decision of where you attend college or what you study essentially irrelevant. A student might spend a small amount on a college, only to discover that the education they received was not right for them. And that’s a very costly mistake. Students are better off making sure that all factors-not just financial-play a role in their decision-making process.