Bring On the Sledgehammer

President Obama’s college ratings plan is widely hated by the higher-ed status quo. That’s why it’s so promising.

President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address at Barnard College.
A system that currently survives on nearly three-quarters contingent faculty labor has more than earned a sledgehammer.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/GettyImages

Barack Obama’s plan for a universal rating system for America’s colleges and universities, announced last year and the subject of a New York Times front-pager this week, is bad news, say the nation’s college presidents. Given many college presidents’ lack of regard for the students they ostensibly serve, is it any wonder that I think it might actually be a good idea?  The proposal as it currently stands—in its “version 1.0,” according to White House official Cecelia Muñoz—is tremendously flawed, but most of its flaws have fixes. And besides, even in its current state, I believe it would do more good than harm in regulating a system that now dangerously approaches a racket.

This system would, White House officials told the Times, classify schools as “excellent,” “good,” “fair,” or “poor” values, based on such criteria as accessibility to lower income and minority students, cost, average student debt, graduation rates, and—most controversially—the earnings of graduates. Schools determined to be a better value would have better financial aid options. Obama “is not interested in driving anybody out of business,” Muñoz told the Times—adding, pointedly, “unless they are poorly serving the American people.”

Reactions to the ratings system in the university world have been, as the Chronicle of Higher Education puts it more than a touch euphemistically, “mixed.” While there’s been a trickle of support from public and land-grant universities for Obama’s plan, most representatives of the higher-ed status quo are livid. Charles L. Flynn, Jr., president of the College of Mt. St. Vincent, calls the program “uncharacteristically clueless.” The president of Baylor, Kenneth Starr—yes, that Kenneth Starr—declares the plan as “quite wrongheaded.” (Perhaps another reason I like it.)

And when the Education Department’s Jamienne Studley compares quantifying an institution of higher learning to “rating a blender,” it’s easy to wonder how much experience in higher education the White House has. After all, Obama’s larger plan, available in full here, devotes a disturbing amount of praise to MOOCs and the all-online, “competency-based” Western Governors University, which, as I’ve reported in the past, has an unimpressively high attrition rate, and charges higher tuition than most regional and community colleges.

But here’s why I still hope Obama’s plan will work. The very fact that the ratings’ most vocal detractors are college presidents—who often rake in millions while their students crumble under debt—should tell us Obama is onto something. North Virginia Community College president Robert G. Templin Jr. claims we shouldn’t “take a sledgehammer” to the American higher education system across the board. I say that a system that currently survives on nearly three-quarters contingent faculty labor has more than earned a sledgehammer—or at least a thorough audit from the body that’s providing a healthy percentage of its revenue.

And that’s why I’m truly baffled at colleges being so affronted at this apparent government intrusion. If you funded an industry through $150 billion in loans, wouldn’t you demand some accountability? Very few American colleges refuse government aid—the ultra-libertarian Hillsdale College goes without, but almost everybody else depends on it, from Harvard to the University of Phoenix. Stafford Loans and such (like me, you probably have a few) are subsidized at low interest rates, and guaranteed by the government in the case of default. And about 10 percent of borrowers do default within their first two years; by three years out, it’s already up past 14 percent.

At the same time, tuition continues to skyrocket, with nobody but the very richest able to afford it without some sort of aid. Worse yet, according to a recent report in The Nation, much of this borrowed money is going to luxury amenities and facilities. Too many of America’s colleges and universities are already doing a poor job of regulating their “value” themselves, so the question isn’t why the government is concerned about whether loan money is serving students’ interests. Why, instead, weren’t they concerned before?

The White House claims to be open to input from higher-ed experts. Well, Mr. President, I’m a higher-ed expert, and I hope you’ll consider the following upgrades in your plan. I’ll start with the aspect of the plan that causes the most agita in academia: The emphasis on graduate earnings. Critics of the program are right to point out that a school that churns out hedge fund managers (or, you know, the legacy rich, who were always going to “earn”) does not deserve a better rating than a school with a stellar program in, say, social work, one of the worst-paid but most important jobs in the known universe. But the fix for this is easy: Tie aid not to salaries, but to relative earnings specific to both field and region.

Another important concern I share with the critics of the system is tying aid to attrition rates, which are often higher in schools that serve more first-generation and minority college students—the very students deserving of more aid. The White House should recognize that without some serious caveats, tying aid to retention would not encourage better student support, so much as coerce faculty to pass all students, no matter what. I should know—my first teaching job ever was for a for-profit school in New Jersey. On my first day of work, the dean told me, point blank: “Everybody has to pass. Otherwise we don’t get their government money.”

And finally, it dismays me to see that in a federal initiative to reform higher education, there is no mention whatsoever of the labor crisis that all but defines the 21st-century American university: The ever-growing dependence on barely-paid part-time adjuncts, which makes skyrocketing tuition particularly unconscionable. If the president wants to pre-emptively pop the bubble, he needs to address the adjunct crisis. One of the major factors of a university’s “value” rating should be the percentage of courses taught by full-time, salaried faculty.

However, even if the ratings system were to be implemented today, in its flawed first draft, its results would likely be more positive than negative. Government-issued ratings would force administrations to be accountable to the lender whose money they now take with few strings, and it might prevent them them from continuing to foist the inevitable consequences upon the students they are overcharging to underserve. Nietzsche said we should philosophize with a hammer to test the solidity of ideas that work, and destroy those that don’t. It’s high time we come at higher education with a hammer as well—starting with the university president’s office.