About one month ago, President Obama announced plans for sweeping changes in higher education. In short, he wants the system to be much more efficient, affordable, and timely. Numerous reports have indicated the cost of higher education has increased at rapid rates. Bloomberg indicated that since I started college in 1985, the cost has risen by 500 percent.
This is a complex problem. Our health care provider told us to expect a 19 percent increase this year. Technology upgrades mean additional costs. The reality is while we are a nonprofit, nothing is slowing the for-profits interested in greater profit margins. But I understand the president’s concerns.
Yet as I heard President Obama share ideas about measuring the effectiveness of institutions as a solution, I was concerned. I agree that assessment is essential. We need to make sure we are delivering on what we promise. But my concern is how will these metrics be developed, and will they really be able to consider all of the factors that impact student success and institutional performance?
As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his team begin their work, I would like to propose a competitive diving approach to college assessment. In diving, you receive a raw score from 1 to 10 based on dive execution. That score is averaged by the judges, then multiplied by the degree of difficulty for the overall score.
Most of the rankings that exist, particularly those of U.S. News & World Report, measure inputs dependent upon wealth so that quality is determined by whom you serve rather than what you do with them. Essentially, the fewer Pell Grant, part-time, nontraditional and students of color you serve, the better your outcomes.
Elite colleges, which educate those who received the best high school educations and who frequently have plenty of money, serve students who have the right inputs ,which almost guarantee high retention and graduation rates, low debt, and high employment.
But, in order to be fair, any new rating system must calculate the degree of difficulty when examining the metrics. For example, reviewing data for the last three years available, the smaller a share of the student body made of Pell Grant eligible students a college has, the better the graduation rate.
In fact, decades of research prove this point. The difference is significant as well. For 2011, as an example, the graduation rate for baccalaureate nonprofit colleges was 52 percent. For colleges with fewer than 20 percent Pell grant recipients (generally households earning less than $40,000 a year), the graduation rate was 79 percent. It dropped to 56 percent for colleges with 21-40 percent Pell students, and then to 42 percent for institutions with 41-60 percent Pell students. For those where more than 60 percent were Pell grant recipients, the graduation rate was 31 percent.
Colleges with less than 20 percent Pell students had few part-time, nontraditional and underrepresented students of color. Colleges with more than 60 percent Pell students had twice as many part-timers, five times as many nontraditionals, and almost six times as many underrepresented students of color.
And yet most rankings have lauded the first group for providing a great education. They essentially have done simple dives -- forward in a tuck position off a 1-meter springboard which has a degree of difficulty of 1.2 (based on USA diving). Meanwhile, many colleges attempt a back 4 1/2 somersaults in a tuck position off a 3-meter springboard, degree of difficulty 4.6. The problem is, we don’t get the degree of difficulty factored in. Only the raw score is calculated and we’re determined to be lesser institutions.
If President Obama’s plan to overhaul higher education is to have any credibility, there must be a degree of difficulty factor. In fact, there should be some other factors as well if there is to be any equity in this process. If colleges will be evaluated on the earnings of graduates, will the methodology take into account that women earn 77 percent of what men do, and this would disproportionately penalize women’s colleges and those with high proportions of women? Will the rankings factor in students who had to leave college because the government changed Parent PLUS loan eligibility?
The skepticism is widespread because we’ve watched numbers being used without proper context. For example, the highly touted White House College Scorecard was launched in February as a great step in accountability. For my institution, the graduation rate was listed as 24 percent. That looks atrocious. And yet, nothing on that webpage indicated that rate was based on freshmen who started in August of 2005, a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina made the campus unusable for almost one year. Eight years later we are finally opening all previously closed buildings.
We lost half that freshman class after one year, and large numbers of sophomores and juniors. The simple analysis presented on the scorecard paints a damaging picture. If consequences are then attached without all factors being weighed, this becomes an attack on a college.
The point is there has to be serious analysis with the broadest range of institutions at the table as this rating is developed. If all the factors are not considered, we end up with a simplistic one-size-fits-all that harms many institutions and their students. I know President Obama does not want that to be part of his legacy.
We are diving into a new territory to rate colleges. I just hope we’ll use diving's scoring as well.
Walter M. Kimbrough is president of Dillard University.
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