Social Mission Should Be Part of College Ranking Equation

Over Labor Day Weekend nearly 300,000 college and university students descended on Boston to begin another academic year, bringing with them energy, vitality, diversity, intellectual curiosity and yes, traffic jams, crowded restaurants and noise! The same scene happened all over this great nation as hundreds of thousands of students arrived in communities large and small, rural and urban. Yet, sadly, far too many students were unable to begin college or university this academic year. "I just can't afford to finish"; "I couldn't find a co-signer for my student loans"; "I thought I had enough credits to graduate and now I find out I don't and I can't afford another year"; "I can't work 40 hours and study, so I'll forgo college for work"; "I can't take care of my children, work and go to school." These few examples tell the stories of the complex issues of affordability, accessibility, and accountability that are very much part of the national discourse within and outside of higher education.

On August 22nd, President Obama proposed sweeping changes that address these critical issues. His plan aims to balance college access and affordability while increasing accountability so that college remains achievable for all Americans, especially those of middle and lower socioeconomic status. The President proposed to institute ranking systems based on access, affordability and outcomes that include such factors as the percentage of students receiving Pell grants, average tuition, scholarships, debt, the average salary of graduates, and the percentage of students who graduate in 6 years. The President also advocates giving students more transparent information on college performance. He would tie these rankings to the amount of federal student aid colleges and universities receive.

I am pleased that President Obama has provided an opening to have a deeper and more inclusive discussion on these longstanding, complicated and much nuanced issues. The over 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States - public and private - have unique histories, challenges and opportunities to improve on this nation's core value of educational opportunity for all. The President and other state and local policy makers are correct in seeking greater accountability for the over $150 billion that is spent each year in student financial aid at the federal level and the $70 billion that states spend on public colleges and university. The alumnae and stewards of our great private institutions are heavily invested in ensuring that the billions of dollars invested in these institutions are spent wisely. In Massachusetts alone, private institutions have awarded more than $560 million in need-based financial aid to Massachusetts students and their families.

These issues of affordability, access and accountability and how we set and determine standards are critically important to the future of education in this nation. Any new ranking system for colleges and universities must recognize that all institutions are unique; therefore, it will be challenging to develop a ranking system that accurately reflects each institution's strengths and challenges.

Wheelock College, where I am President, is an excellent example. We are a 125-year-old private college with a public mission to improve the lives of children and families. Because of our unique mission and commitment to social justice, our graduates often enter fields that do not pay high salaries - such as social work, teaching, counseling, and youth advocacy. Our graduates follow our mission to improve the lives of children and families by making this a better world--there is no more noble cause. Any new ranking system must account for the special mission of Wheelock College and other institutions who graduate students who are committed to social justice.

President Obama's proposals are well intended. They give the nation another opportunity to grapple with these complex issues. How we discuss and resolve them will tell us a great deal about our values and core beliefs about educational access, social justice and equality. I look forward to the dialogue.