President Obama began promoting a plan in August to rate colleges on their value and affordability and to tie those ratings to the $150 billion in financial aid that the federal government supplies each year.
Should Mr. Obama’s plan come to pass, value would not just be a selling point for colleges, it would be a matter of life and death. But there is no agreement on how to measure the value of a college, and there is no agreement, or anything even close, on what value is in the first place, opines The New York Times:
“It’s a quest for the holy grail,” said Judith Scott-Clayton, a professor of economics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “It sounds good, it sounds like something we’d love to know, to be able to rank the value of these institutions, but when it comes down to practicalities, it’s very, very difficult.”
“U.S. News and World Report, whose academic rankings have long been derided — and obsessively followed — by college presidents, now publishes “best value” lists as well. Princeton Review, which has advised decades of prospective students on the best party schools, more recently began listing the best value schools, too. Forbes Magazine got in the is-it-worth-the-money game too, as did, among others, The Wall Street Journal, The Alumni Factor, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and Payscale, a company that gathers data about the job market.
“Some of these analyses approach value as largely a function of cost: How much is tuition? What subsidies are available? Others define it as return on investment: How much do graduates earn? Some factor in student satisfaction or academic ranking or graduation rates or economic diversity, all in varying quantities. These widely divergent definitions produce wildly divergent results. Queens College did splendidly in a list that emphasizes social mobility and civic virtue. Another New York City public college, Baruch, took third place; No. 1 was Amherst. But on a ranking that emphasizes alumni salaries, like Payscale’s list of Colleges Worth Your Investment, Queens comes in 341st. The top spot there goes to Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont, Calif., which has a much higher tuition, but whose graduates disproportionately enter lucrative fields like science and engineering. The top tier of U.S. News’s list somehow features Harvard, Princeton, Williams — and Soka University of America, a tiny Buddhist college in Southern California that admitted its first undergraduates in 2001.
“Forbes’s most recent list starts out with the five national service academies, which charge no tuition. And when the Education Trust, an advocacy group, set out to list the colleges that do right by low-income students, it found only five entries, including Queens. As for the federal government, no one yet knows how it will perform its evaluation. Arne Duncan, the education secretary, has said that his goal is a ratings system, not a single first-place-to-last-place ranking, and that the ratings will compare only schools that are similar in their mission, their student population and so on. Harvard and Yale, that is; not Harvard and Soka University of America.”