Apples to Apples: The Complexities of Lowering College Costs

Due to the challenges of being in my third trimester, I've been working from home this week. I find I'm fairly productive at home, however I admit to a little channel surfing here and there. After surfing through literally hundreds of terrible options the other day, I landed on CNN as a "safe bet" for the day.

My ears perked up, and I became increasingly disturbed, when the topic turned to higher education. An anchor woman and a " journalist/pundit/ expert" in higher education engaged in a conversation that I can only describe as being on par with reality TV around the cost and value of higher education. I was appalled, as usual, by the twisted facts, statistics taken out of context, and finger pointing that were the focus of the segment. And I won't comment on the content knowledge either of them displayed.

I don't presume to speak for all professionals in higher education, but many of us are tired of fighting the "is college worth it" argument. We have a lot of statistics in our heads about why college is worth it and I'm about ready to just say to folks, "If it's not worth it, why are we still talking about it, and why are thousands of parents packing their kids off to college as I'm writing this?"

Issues of access and affordability to and for post-secondary attainment are as old as the idea of higher education. Heck, the very system was premised on an elitist and sexist perspective on education. Graduate students in higher education MA and PhD programs across the country still debate whether education is a right or a privilege. It shouldn't then be a surprise that as we struggle to make education an opportunity for everyone, we run into significant barriers from a long-held system that tilts opportunity in favor of the "haves."

Yesterday President Obama announced a set of ambitious proposals aimed at making colleges more accountable and affordable by rating them and ultimately linking those ratings to financial aid. The proposal plans to rate colleges before the 2015 school year based on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend. The ratings would compare colleges against their peer institutions and if the plan can win Congressional approval, the idea is to base federal financial aid to students attending the colleges partly on those rankings.

I've been watching the administration's move to more accountability and more transparency and certainly applaud both, but am cautious about linking aid to educational outcomes. I have no issue with making public information that can assist families in making decision about colleges. But rankings are a treacherous territory.

Rankings (whether intentional or not) imply that apples are being compared to apples and oranges to oranges. Anyone who has embarked on a college tour with their high school-aged son or daughter can attest to the wide range of post-secondary institutions in the United States. Institutions vary by size, mission, focus, student population, resources, and quality (yes, said it!). So how will decisions be made about what institutions are comparable, and comparable by what standards? Will institutions be comparable as two- or four-year institutions, as public or private, as minority serving, as elite, and what if they fall into multiple categories? The problem is that the myriad of differences exist among "like" schools. For example, what happens to a Hispanic-Serving Institution that is making significant gains in graduating our fastest growing student population, but who falls short on prescribed rankings?

Tuition, graduation rates, debt, percentage of low-income, first generation, and under-represented students, and earnings of graduates tell a story, but only within a specific context. Graduation rates could be high because standards are low, graduation rates could be low because funding has been significantly cut in that state or region. I could go on, but the number of mitigating factors is endless.

To keep with the fruit analogy, we cannot cherry pick which part of the story we tell and we can't water down a very complex story in order to make the solution easier to fix. We have all turned to rankings to ease the over-whelming and painful process of decision-making but how many of us regret that we didn't purse the whole picture and perform due diligence in our research before making that big decision? My biggest fear is that folks won't go beyond the rankings to determine if an institution might still be right for them.

I agree that institutions need to more aggressive in their approach to cutting costs and I agree that colleges are going to need to step out of the box to work at making college more affordable for everyone. I also agree with accountability measures and the idea of holding colleges accountable for quality and timely degree completion. But tying rankings to federal aid means we are potentially sealing the fate of some very quality post-secondary institutions who may just be serving the students who most need to opportunity.