A White House-proposed plan to link federal student loan and grant monies to a college’s performance is good in concept but falls short in the details, West Virginia University Provost Michele Wheatly says.
“We all agree about the potential value of a rating system – we do want to be transparent and we do want to be accountable as institutions of higher education,” said Wheatly, who recently spoke at an Association of Public and Land Grand Universities panel on the ratings system.
However, the panelists agreed that the College Scorecard as currently structured misses the mark in effectively evaluating and rating many disparate institutions. Also on the panel were David Bergeron of the Center for American Progress, APLU’s Christine Keller and Juliette Bell, president of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
The metrics on the Scorecard include costs, graduation rate, loan default rate, median borrowing and employment. A website already allows visitors to enter a college name and see how it fares on most of these metrics (jobs data are not currently available).
However Wheatly and others question the categories, the means used to calculate some of these metrics, and Obama’s expressed intention to link federal aid to Scorecard results as early as 2018. This would mean that students who attended a college or university with high ratings on the Scorecard would be eligible for more federal aid than a student who chose to attend a college that scored poorly.
The plan has a number of problems, Wheatly says. For one thing, universities like WVU have to look at the needs, paces and outcomes of their student body, which includes first-generation college students, low-income students and active military members.
“As a land-grant institution, we are committed to providing access to higher education,” Wheatly said. “What’s more, we believe that with the comprehensive academic support services we offer, students can achieve success beyond what they have previously attained in high school or at a community college.
“Some of our students do take more than six years to graduate, but they still emerge from WVU as talented young people prepared to enter the work force. So comparing our six-year graduation rate to that at a school with a very different student population isn’t just unfair to WVU and the education we provide. It’s unfair to our students.”
Wheatly and others in the higher education community would like to see the College Scorecard change the way it measures and evaluates graduation rates. Some also question if this should even be included in the ratings. As Bergeron pointed out on the APLU panel and in a previously-published article, teachers and social workers need degrees to provide a valuable service to society, but they won’t ever make the high salaries that might boost a college’s rating.
“And yet,” Wheatly asked, “do we really want a higher education system that doesn’t educate our future teachers or public servants?”
The President’s rating system has other pitfalls: the use of university self-reported data to the U.S. Department of Education, the establishment of peer groups that may not accurately reflect populations served, differing goals of institutional accountability and better consumer decision making within one system, and a ratings formula that could ultimately penalize institutions who are already effectively serving Pell Grant recipients.
One alternative the APLU suggests that the College Scorecard use is the Student Achievement Measure to assess student outcomes, a recommendation with which Wheatly concurs.
“I think that is a much better way of assessing who’s in the pipeline and where they start and where they finish,” she said.
The federal graduation rate only tracks completion of first-time, full-time students at one institution. The SAM provides a more complete picture of student progress along the path to earning a degree or certificate, tracking, among other things, student progress even when students move from one institution (say, a community college) to another to complete their degree. Enrollment in the SAM is voluntary; more information can be found at http://www.studentachievementmeasure.org/. Both West Virginia University and Marshall University are participants in the SAM.
To reach Wheatly for comment on the College Scorecard and alternative proposals, contact Ann Claycomb, at 304.293.5701.
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