November 3 2013
Vicki E. Alger
Since 1985 college costs have ballooned 538 percent, according to Bloomberg News. Statistics like this one have prompted President Obama to make college affordability a top priority. Part of that agenda is linking federal financial aid to how colleges perform on a proposed College Rating system, a plan that was released this summer.
The details have yet to be hammered out, but U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that a first draft would be ready this spring.
But that’s beside the point. Dispersing federal aid based on colleges’ ratings isn’t supposed to go into effect until 2018…and that’s a good thing since a lack of information isn’t driving college costs up. Federal subsidies that fund bloated administration and poor performance do.
The Obama administration’s College Rating system does nothing to change that—especially given the Pandora’s box of politicized motivations there will be to define a college’s value in terms that make supporters happy.
Which majors are most valuable? How long should it take for students to complete a degree? How much money should they make after graduation? If a given degree field isn’t paying enough, should we pass another “stimulus” package to make sure degrees earned in low-paying fields pay bigger salaries?
Besides the great potential for politicization, the scorecard idea is based on faulty economics. Bad incentives, not bad information, drive up college costs. Growth in administration has outpaced teaching staff for more than a decade. Often students cannot register for the classes they need because so many high-paid tenured professors are on sabbatical. Meanwhile, borrowing to pay for Taj Mahal sports, entertainment, and dining facilities mean colleges are drowning in debt, leaving students and taxpayers worse off than before.
For all the initial appeal and sensible-sounding press snippets, the College Rating systems is at best a distraction from the fact that federal policies have made college less—not more—affordable. This latest scheme is no different.