‘it’s like rating a blender’

The Obama administration is developing a proposal to rate colleges, a draft of which should come out this fall. Unsurprisingly, college presidents hate the idea. And honestly, so do I.

Org theorists know a thing or two about what happens when you rate things. People change their behavior. In this case, that’s the point — Arne Duncan et al. are hoping that the ratings will create incentives for colleges to graduate more students with less debt and higher post-graduation incomes.

Now, those are obviously not objectionable goals. There are some clear challenges in adjusting for the expected performance of different student bodies, and worries about disincentives to go into low-paying fields like teaching or social work, but who doesn’t want college to be more affordable, somehow?*

The big problem is the outcome that is missing in there: students who have learned things. If you create a system that measures access, completion, debt, and eventual income, and it has any teeth at all, you will get colleges that aim for those things. Unfortunately, those things have a limited relationship to actual learning. Where one conflicts with the other, learning will lose.

Of course, I’m kind of hesitant to say that, because heaven knows what would happen if we started trying to measure learning outcomes at the federal level. No Young Adult Left Behind, I guess. Coursera can sell us the curriculum.

* Another problem worth mentioning is that many adults without degrees don’t see graduation rates and average student debt levels as relevant to their college decision — they think it depends on them, not the school.


Written by epopp

June 11, 2014 at 4:00 pm

One Response

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  1. The Chronicle of Higher Education had a very nice piece recently that talked about the point that for the research universities of the US, which are a huge innovation engine for the country, their job is very different from “graduating more students for less cost”.

    Policymakers however seem to not understand the point of the “R-one” institution versus community colleges and voc ed schools, each of which provide very useful services, but they are different. We have enough trouble trying to figure out how to rate K-12 schools (or even the extent that we should), what if all high school teachers had to be globally recognized for their research and independently fund their pre-service teachers? A much more difficult problem to “rate”, I’d say.

    I encourage anyone interested in this subject to take the time to read this very well-stated article by Nicholas Lemann:



    June 16, 2014 at 5:32 pm

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