The U.S. Government Wants To Rate American Colleges


It is often said that those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it. Well, it looks like the U.S. Government is attempting to forget its mistakes by rating colleges and universities, a process it attempted–disastrously–to do in 1911. The government refusing to learn from its past errors? Shocking, I know.

Nonetheless, individuals within the U.S. Department of Education are attempting to create a federal system to rate colleges based on quality, like how consumer reports rank fast food restaurants or computers. If that sounds like it is a koan that could easily backfire, raise your hands. Assuming you’re all throwing your hands in the air and waving them around like you just don’t care, I’ll move on.

It seems like the Department of Education and President Obama forgot what happened in 1911, when the forerunner to the Education Department, at the behest of some colleges, attempted to rank the schools by quality. At the time, less than three percent of the population had a bachelor’s degree, and only a shocking 14 percent even graduated from college. Despite those basement-level numbers, an independent group known as the Association of American Universities wanted a ranking to determine the all-important question, at the time, of graduate school applications: “When students applied to graduate school, how could universities know how good their undergraduate education was?”

So they asked the federal government to step in, thinking they could come up with a ranking that would be fair, balanced, and be universally accepted within the United States and abroad. And holy crap, were they wronger than wrong.

Kendric Babcock, the utmost authority on higher education within the Bureau of Education at the time, looked at the transcripts of thousands of students and talked to many academic administrators to determine a ranking system for these schools. He eventually rated just over half of the nation’s colleges and universities, splitting them into four classifications based on how well-prepared students were for graduate school.

Granted, this was a rating system, not a ranking system. The categories implied quality, but weren’t exactly going to determine the superiority of Harvard versus Yale. The list of top-tier colleges is varied, but most of the colleges on it are still very well-respected today, including mainstays like Harvard, Princeton, Barnard, and Brown, as well as flagship state schools like Cal, Michigan, and Kansas.

The bottom group consisted of colleges Babcock thought were so awful, their graduates ended up two years behind peers from other places. Some of those bottom-tier colleges don’t exist anymore, closing under pressure from the rating system; others, such as Kansas State and Virginia Tech, have survived, thrived, and have become prominent universities on the national stage. Here’s the full report and ranking if you’re interested.

When the newspapers got a hold of the list and published it, people were naturally pissed, saying that this would be bad for business and HOW DARE THEY SAY MY SCHOOL IS BAD, IT’S THE BEST! It’s the classic case of a parent saying to a teacher, “my Jared is very special–it’s not his fault that he’s failing your class, it’s yours for being a shitty teacher,” while he sits in class refusing to learn, never does the homework or studies, and, quite possibly, spends the entire time jerking off under his desk.

Unfortunately, as people know very well, more often than not the “my Jared is very special” defense works, and the uproar for this was so major, it got all the way to the White House. President Taft managed to get his fat ass unstuck from his bathtub to issue an executive order banning the distribution of this list, and President Wilson upheld the decision, despite being a big supporter of academia.

But now President Obama is trying again, tasking Secretary of Education and total badass Arne Duncan to rate the American universities. Duncan claims that he, unlike Babcock, is approaching the task of rating colleges with “a huge sense of humility,” and will consider more than just ability to succeed in graduate school, such as variables related to financial aid offered, acceptance of low-income students, and the all-important ability to pay off loans after graduation. Naturally, colleges are as vehemently against this as they were in the early 1910s, with college presidents “arguing that the ratings effort itself is misguided, or that measuring graduates’ incomes is the wrong way to measure the value of higher education, or that there is no way a rating system will capture the different missions of community colleges and elite private universities.”

But for those of us choking down incredibly inflated student loan payments while making an entry-level salary, or for those of us who are wading through unemployment while ruining our credit ratings, it’s about damn time.

You’re not going to change the minds of the Harvards and Yales and Princetons of the world. They’ve been doing things their way since before the United States was a country, and they seem to be doing just fine for themselves. Let them be. But maybe a ratings system will shine a light of much-needed transparency on where our tuition dollars go toward, and it will show us what the hell our parents (or ourselves) are paying for. My alma mater, which I will not reveal here for the sake of its privacy, seems to spend all of its students’ $40,000 tuition, $15,000 room and board, and $1 billion endowment on the chancellor’s mansion, a football program that’s really just not good, despite how hard they try to push it, and putting out statements decrying our status as the #1 party school in America. Whoops–did it just give it away?

Meanwhile, there’s a girl at Vanderbilt who was forced to turn to the Internet to raise her own tuition after her father lost his job and her mother killed herself due to grief from losing her brother from an overdose. But the school refused to give her any extra financial aid for her trouble. It was quite the contrary, actually–Vanderbilt took her financial aid AWAY because her father was employed LAST year, not this year, and he got custody of the girl after her mother died. I’m sure she’s not alone, but obviously not every story gets national attention, especially when they don’t have somewhat of a happy ending.

Is a list rating all the universities in the country going to change anything at all? Probably not. I’m not confident it will bring any changes, but like I’ve said before, something needs to be done. The university system in this country is broken. If families are bankrupting themselves to put their kids through college and kids are mortgaging their own futures against an education that will get them a job that barely covers their loan payments IF THEY’RE LUCKY, while university officials line their pockets with what is, basically, blood money, something has got to give. Will a ranking of all universities help? Again, probably not. But if it shines a light on student debt and makes things more transparent for the American public, it’s a start.

[via Vox]

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