When people want to know how “good” a university is, they often turn to published media ratings, such as the rankings of U.S. News & World Report. The assumption is that the better the ratings, the better the university is. But there may be cases in which a better rating is actually a bad thing. It all depends on the mission of the university. Consider, for example, the case of the land-grant mission.
First, the land-grant mission, as framed by the Morrill Act of 1862, emphasizes the importance of access. Believers in the land-grant mission trust in the potential of students and in their capacity for self-improvement. They therefore want to give all qualified students a chance to succeed at their university. From the standpoint of the land-grant mission, the more qualified students a university accepts, the better it is in fulfilling its mission. That’s true even if it means enrolling a large share of those who apply. U.S. News, in contrast, factors into its ratings "student selectivity." In other words, the more students a college or university rejects, the more highly it is rated. The land-grant mission, therefore, leads to the opposite conclusion of the U.S. News ratings regarding what constitutes quality.
Second, the land-grant mission is about access because of a belief of its creators in the modifiability of human abilities. Such a view is consistent with a wide variety of psychological research indicating that people can become smarter.
So in taking students with a wider range of standardized test scores than would normally be admitted to highly selective universities, the land-grant university is betting that students can become smarter through a college education. They are emphasizing “throughput” rather than input. Their concern is with the value added by a college education more than by the input value shown by standardized tests.
On this view, relying heavily on standardized tests in college admissions locks students into a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby some, by virtue of their superior enculturation, socialization, and schooling, are given more opportunities, whereas others who have had fewer past opportunities are blocked off from better future opportunities. In essence, universities have created a “Matthew effect” through their admissions process, whereby to those who have more, comes more, and to those who have less, comes less.
Third, the land-grant mission leads us to wish to serve our states and the communities within our states by educating ethical leaders who will make a positive, meaningful, and enduring difference to the nation and the world. Ethical leaders come from all kinds of backgrounds. Through work or chores as well as through school and extracurricular activities, students learn the importance of creativity, integrity, hard work, self-reliance, responsibility, entrepreneurship, common sense, and how to work with others for a common good. ACTs and SATs measure important academic skills, but the scores do not measure these crucial characteristics of ethical leaders.
U.S. News does not count these characteristics at all in its ratings, but it does count ACT and SAT scores, which measure only a tiny sliver of the characteristics (in particular, knowledge and analytical reasoning with this knowledge) that have made our state and our nation great. Nor does U.S. News count some of the things land-grant universities value most, such as employing as many of our graduates as possible in meaningful, well-paying jobs.
Fourth, U.S. News values universities with higher retention rates, which makes sense. But it is much easier for a university to attain a high freshman retention rate if it accepts only students with sky-high high school grades and standardized test scores than if it accepts a broader range of students. Is it “better” to make the university’s task easier? Well, perhaps it is better if the university’s goal is to be as selective as possible. But it is worse if the university’s goal is to give as many qualified students as possible a chance to have a college education. Land-grant universities want to win the retention race, but they typically do not have the jet pack of top high-school grades and test scores strapped to the backs of the large majority of their racers. If they want to increase their U.S. News rating, they may be tempted to restrict admissions to students with strong academic backgrounds, again working against access.
Finally, U.S. News values colleges and universities on their “financial resources.” Many land-grant universities cannot and never will compete on financial resources with institutions that charge $50,000 to $60,000 or more a year in total expenses. They shouldn’t even try. Rather, land-grant universities, in order to promote access, can and should take pride in being as inexpensive as possible.
They could become more expensive and richer, but only at the expense of their mission. In Wyoming, for example, the State Constitution actually requires that education at our state colleges and university be as near to free as possible. U.S. News and similar raters of universities should not define what excellence is. A university’s fidelity to its mission should define what academic excellence is.
Universities that seek to enhance their published ratings, emanating from any of the media, risk sacrificing their mission for the sake of getting higher ratings. There is no one mission that is right for every college and university, and there is no one set of ratings that captures all the factors that lead to excellence in institutions with diverse missions.
Robert J. Sternberg is president of the University of Wyoming. The views expressed in this essay, however, are merely his own personal ones. A subsequent column will outline a proposal for how land-grant universities might appropriately be evaluated and ranked.
The sales pitch is enticing: Let students go to college for "free" and ask them to pay later by taxing a percentage of their incomes once they have jobs. The money coming in from graduates, then pays "forward," covering college costs for current students and alleviating the fear of debt that keeps many college-qualified students from even applying and that discourages college graduates from pursuing careers that may not have high salaries.
That’s the seductive premise behind Pay It Forward, billed as a "debt-free" approach to higher education, currently under consideration in Oregon. But like many sales pitches meant to lure consumers, Pay It Forward provides a superficial "fix" that has more downsides than up, thereby masking the real problems in higher education financing.
There is no disputing that higher education is facing a crisis of affordability. State funding per student has dropped to its lowest level in 25 years, shifting much of the financial responsibility for college costs to students and their families. The result? Too many students have to choose between avoiding college altogether or taking on overwhelming amounts of debt to pay for a degree.
We applaud state policymakers who are working to identify ways to rein in college costs. The United States needs more college-educated workers, and we won’t have them unless we make college more affordable. But we have to make sure that the solutions we put into place don’t work against students and taxpayers by inflating college costs even more, especially for the families who can least afford them.
Because Pay It Forward proposes to tax graduates’ income at a certain rate every year (say 4 percent) for up to 25 years, graduates will end up paying very different amounts for their education — often more than what that education actually cost. An analysis from the Oregon Center for Public Policy estimates that an average student could overpay more than $7,000 under Pay It Forward. Worse, the neediest students — those currently receiving federal or state financial aid — could be hit the hardest, potentially paying thousands more over their lifetimes than they would have under the current system.
Let’s not forget, either, that Pay It Forward only addresses tuition, which makes up just part of total college costs; room and board, books and supplies, and miscellaneous fees aren’t covered. At the University of Oregon, for example, those additional fees amount to almost 60 percent of a student’s total costs. Of the $23,370 total estimated cost of a year at Oregon for a resident of the state, about $9,300 is consumed by tuition. Under Pay It Forward, the average student would have to cover the remaining $14,000 out of pocket or through loans, creating a double whammy for students: They’d have to pay off student loan debt in addition to having their income taxed to "pay it forward."
Some of these concerns could be addressed in any final package. Our biggest concern with Pay It Forward, though, is that it doesn’t address the root issue: rapidly escalating college costs. By positioning higher education less as a public good than as an individual transaction, Pay It Forward absolves both state policymakers and institutional leaders of any responsibility for doing what it takes to slow the rapid increases in the cost of a college education.
Instead of demanding cost-consciousness among college presidents and an ongoing commitment from states to maintain or increase higher education funding, Pay It Forward simply puts a big Band-Aid over the current trend of state disinvestment and the transfer of financial burden from the state to students and their families. Ironically, although trying to ensure progressively that each graduating class opens the door for ones to follow, Pay It Forward could actually just open the door to more privatization of public education.
States should develop innovative solutions to the rising cost of college, but they should be transparent about them. If they’re going to sell students on debt-free college, they should offer debt-free college. Loan debt simply repackaged as delayed tuition payments may be a catchy sales pitch, but it’s a bad bargain for students.
Kati Haycock is president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization.
A new paper from the Delphi Project argues that some key ways colleges can support adjunct faculty don't cost anything, despite administrators' assertions that they can't afford to improve working conditions.