Ratings roulette: Proposed federal system threatens U.S. higher education

Ed L. Schrader is president of Brenau University and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

In this essay, he explains why he opposes a proposed federal rating system for colleges and universities.

By Ed L. Schrader

An eerie quiet in recent weeks seems to have enveloped the proposal – floated by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration – to saddle colleges and universities with an unworkable federal college ratings system.

Dr. Ed L. Schrader president of Brenau University. (Brenau)

Dr. Ed L. Schrader is president of Brenau University. (Brenau)

This new system presumably addresses the needs of the higher education “consumer” by assigning and publishing grades of two- and four-year institutions based on access, affordability and outcomes.

In the minds of its creators, the program grants the federal government an arsenal of sticks and carrots for prodding schools to accomplish the higher education Holy Grail trifecta: 1. greater accessibility for at-risk students, 2. tamping down tuition costs, 3. better outcomes. The success measurements are primarily in terms of reduced dropout rates and increased graduates’ incomes.

All of that sounds great. However, if implemented, the program with its one-size-fits-all measurement could seal the fates of many smaller schools that deliver invaluable services to their students and communities.

My concern now is the silence surrounding this issue. We in the higher education community have been debating this federal government ratings proposal among ourselves and in public for more than a year now. Procedurally, the administration says it is still committed to implementing the program in the next fiscal year, which means it needs to begin right away, but another development could overshadow the implementation.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, is now pushing forward with a comprehensive measure to overhaul the way the federal government handles all aspects of higher education, including the ratings system as a tiny footnote.

My concern is that this ratings system regulation will quietly slip under the radar or gain traction in Alexander’s bill in the behind-the-scenes political horse-trading that always seems to saddle well-intentioned ideas with awful unintended consequences.

I do not object in theory. We in higher education strive to provide outstanding learning and growing environments at an affordable cost as students develop into community leaders equipped with skills to become accomplished professionals. Clearly, there are areas within this endeavor that warrant federal government leadership – including overseeing and maintaining the world’s greatest higher education system and finding more ways to improve the quality and availability of higher education.

This wrong-headed proposed ratings system effort is particularly tone deaf when it comes to the contexts and settings in which many colleges and universities serve. Schools in traditionally underserved higher education areas often draw students who are first generation, minority and low income. That group has a 90 percent dropout rate, compared with a 50 percent for all students who enroll.

Many schools offer education access to a portion of this high-risk demographic. A one-size-fits-all ratings system certainly will place these schools at a disadvantage, particularly as future federal dollars switch to elite, already well-funded institutions with higher graduation rates.

My institution, Brenau University, maintains its 137-year-old undergraduate Women’s College in a region that lags behind the rest of the nation in equal opportunities for women. The university also offers coeducational undergraduate and graduate opportunities for a diverse student population in areas underserved by higher education. The latter group primarily comprises nontraditional students who may have “day jobs” while squeezing in pursuit of degrees around busy family and work schedules.

We have gone to great lengths to ensure student success, but it is not easy or cheap. How can one rigid cookie-cutter measurement assess how well each component of our program succeeds?

Likewise, religiously affiliated universities and colleges as well as historically black schools also offer unique contexts and settings that have served many students and communities well for generations. Many of these schools have a tough balancing act between providing access to unfettered academic inquiry while honoring the faith and traditions that bore them.

A one-size-fits-all ratings system can never reflect adequately the unique missions, important roles and historical challenges faced by hundreds of these schools as they successfully navigate tensions, honor traditions and provide quality education.

The great news is that programs and resources already exist to hold colleges and universities accountable and help guide students as they select the institution that best suits their needs and career aspirations. The U.S. Department of Education currently recognizes six regional accrediting bodies, one of which is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Each accreditor evaluates the vast majority of public, not-for-profit and for-profit private educational institutions in its region. They regularly produce reports on accreditation actions, which include reaffirmations, sanctions of member schools for impropriety, and improvement plans for those in danger of falling below acceptable standards.

These bodies technically already rate colleges and universities on all the criteria addressed by the Duncan-Obama proposal and they do so within the context of the unique nature of each institution. The Department of Education certainly could address any access or quality concerns through closer collaboration with these organizations.

As a university president, I can assure you that this system serves the higher education community and its students well. Accrediting bodies conduct regularly scheduled and intense reviews of each institution – touching all aspects of its academic and administrative operations – with cadres of dispassionate professionals from other unrelated institutions who are experts in their respective fields.

Throughout my career in higher education, I have participated in these studies as both a reviewer and a “reviewee.” To illustrate the thorough vetting that occurs, Brenau just completed months-long reviews by both the accrediting body and the Florida Department of Education to authorize our operations of a campus in Jacksonville. We initially will cultivate three graduate and undergraduate degree programs there that we have offered – with full accreditation – for decades on other campuses. Still, we could not begin to enroll students until the “ratings” were completed.

The beauty of the U.S. higher education culture is that one size does not fit all and that no set of uniform metrics does not define the American college experience. One’s ability to choose from a spectrum of college personalities and myriad courses of study that meet an individual’s specific needs form that rich tapestry of American higher education that the rest of the world so envies.

If the federal government wants to see this coveted advantage continue and expand, it should simply step aside from this misguided ratings effort where it has no expertise or resources. It should focus instead on areas of higher education where its leadership and expertise will make a great system better.

Reader Comments 0

44 comments
AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

SACS accreditation is the same body that accredits private colleges in GA with a 9.4% graduation rate – so there goes the value of your accreditation. Back to the car comparison –“this car is approved by the same body that approves cars that function as designed 10% of the time” would kind of scare a prospective buyer, and rightly so.  SACS is definitely nothing to brag about.


You are the one that compared the value of a college degree to a $35K car – a car that has government test ratings, that is subject to legal warranties, lemon laws, and can be recalled for defects. It also has immediate and lasting value. If you want government student loan money, don’t complain about having to perform to government standards and ratings. Brenau takes the student loan money while the risk is only on the student and the government.


It seems to be all about money, otherwise a compassionate person would not let an 18 year old sign up for tens of thousand$ of student loans when the majority will not graduate on time or at all, and many of those who do will have degrees that were not worth the expense- all to keep the college money machine going.


Please treat incoming freshman as you would want your own child to be treated. Don’t help them sign up for loans for degrees that will not pay off financially. Encourage them to work and go to a local community college to buy cheaper core credits that will transfer, or to get certified in a high demand technical field. They can save for Brenau if that’s their dream.  College will be there for them when they are financially ready. You would be helping so many people escape from decades of financial misery due to the accumulating interest debt load of student loans.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@AvgGeorgian 

The school's graduation rate is not a ground of accreditation for SACS, and shouldn't be since it will change from year to year.  Accreditation for colleges and universities is to make sure that they are academically sound and responsible. SAC's standards are generally accepted in the field and have little to do with student debt, economics, and so on.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@OriginalProf @AvgGeorgian


I know. That is why SACS is not a valuable measure for prospective students. My understanding is that colleges do not want to be held to graduation and employment tracking standards that would allow prospective/current students to see the probable value of their chosen degree. That's fine if they want to be totally private and not accept state or federal money - then it is simply a store(college) selling an unrated product. 


http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/25/us/unc-report-academic-fraud/


Article about how accreditaion seems to  work.


"Accreditation has very little to do with education. For years, I thought my institutions were defrauding accrediting bodies with all the antics they do, but there is no fraud in an accredited school offering utterly bogus courses and degrees, none whatsoever, at least as far as the accrediting body is concerned."


http://www.rense.com/general96/accred.html



LBEddie
LBEddie

The degree is worth the degree of learning, competency of faculty, quality of program, market need of degreed individual, AND the accreditation RATING system currently on place, for Georgia, SACSCOC. Also, the choice of degree discipline is a large responsibility of the student. If you receive a degree in nursing, your employability is very high. If you receive a degree in General Liberal Studies with no major concentrations, your options are limited....using your comparison, like purchasing an upscale Mercedes or a overused "disposable " car from an unknown supplier.


And, you are the one preaching no accountability. Regional Accreditation agencies like SACS have proven to be the best in the world for over 100 years. If they need to change of enhance their reach, then make it happen but don't discard it for government bureaucracy.


There is total accountability. If you fail to pass SACS approval, you loose access to student loans. Offer to talk is still open b ut I'm taking my dog out for his evening constitutional for now, Good evening.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Tired of the student loan racket that turns many young people with little financial decision making skills into indentured servants with suspect or no degrees while enriching highly paid administrators. 


It is sad that colleges want the money but no accountability.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Let's see - you want the students to borrow money from the federal government and buy classes from Brenau but you don't want that same government to rate your program. You want the money with no strings?


Again, you compared your degrees to a new car.


Can you sell your degree for a cash sum at any time?


Does it have a warranty?


Do you do recalls on defective parts?

LBEddie
LBEddie

Hey, You appear to be a thoughtful and serious person. Let meet for coffee sometime when I am in Atlanta and we can go into more depth. Can't Hurt

LBEddie
LBEddie

I am only using their statistics. I don't need to use them to prove that college education enriches and fulfills one's life.Using BLS statas versus letting the BLS run American enterprises as a result od their stats are really a big bit differernt

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

My point is you use a federal agency (BLS) to support the value of your program but don't want a federal agency to rate it.

LBEddie
LBEddie

Sorry...BLS is also a degree, Bachelors in Liberal Studies, which is an interdisciplinary studies program.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

BLS is Bureau of Labor Statistics which you quoted.

LBEddie
LBEddie

Perhaps you don't value the product of their investment ash highly  the Bureau ot labor Statics show?

LBEddie
LBEddie

1) Mostly correct...we track every year but the 5 response is totally due to the number of graduates who respond, we have no leverage to require responses...however, our number are statistically accurate.


2) we graduate very few BLS students. Often they are senior citizens who are looking to complete a college experience. We graduate about 700 to 750 students per year with half being graduate degrees.


3) the 55% graduation is equal to or ahead of national average. Also, remember we work with at least 50% students who are the first in their family to attend college. That demographic statistically historically is the most challenged to complete college....but, we are extremely proud of our successes in that group.


4) Sorry, but ewe disagree here. We award degrees upon the recommendation of the faculty for each and every student who are then voted upon by the board of Trustees. If we did as you intimate and "sold degrees" why wouldn't we just take the money and award all students all desired degrees?


5) Presidential compensation is public information and demonstrates full transparency. Our Board of Trustees has a Compensation Committee that established goals and objectives for my every year's performance and then compares our compensation to peer and aspirant Universities in the region and nation. I am right at the 50 percentile level. My compensation reflects, I believe, our very strong showing (good enrollment, academic quality, and financial results) during the recession, balancing the budget every year and providing raises to faculty when most in state privates had to forgo or delay salary increase.


Again, the average student graduating from Brenau has a student loan debt about 45000 below the national average at ~$24,000. We do an excellent job of providing an elite educational experience art an affordable cost. Remember our $9.5 Million in financial aid results in a average 455 reduction of every undergraduate in the residential college. We have been cited multiple times as one of the Best Colleges for your Buck by US News and World Report. AND...I do not disagree that we need ratings. I say that SACSCOC (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) the southeastern accrediting organization is much better as an independent source of this comparative data than a federal bureaucracy!. THAt's the main point.


Unfortunately, your math is not up to date with a near $60 Million per year budget and 3000 students.



AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

My calculations show that if you were still paid (according to Gainesville Times article) what you were back in 2005, each of Brenau's 2854 students are paying $56 dollars per year for just your salary (not including benefits and expense account). Some of those students will never graduate but will still have to pay off their loans. 


Let's see. If they borrowed the $56 for  four years, that would total to $224. Paid off over a 10 year period , the former student would pay $2.58 per month for 10 years with $85.22 in accumulated interest. - for just the Brenau president's salary(2007 style).

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Sorry, your post did not show until after I posted.


Your tracking is vague. You don't want the federal government providing ratings for Brenau ,but you use the BLS to support your argument for Brenau's value.


It is not that difficult to track each and every student and post non-identifying data on jobs and pay. Do you have a link to those stats?


You have a 55% rate of students failing to graduate in a reasonable amount of time.


You do not "award" degrees any more that a car dealer awards a purchased car to the buyer.


As to non profits, "The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Brenau University president Ed Schrader received $160,318 in pay, $41,692 in benefits and a $58,191 expense account. Schrader began as Brenau’s president in January 2005."  http://www.gainesvilletimes.com/archives/1275/ 


That was in 2007. Kids borrow lots of money to help pay salaries like that. They deserve an honest rating system.


LBEddie
LBEddie

And...strictly independent with no political party allegiances.....

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@LBEddie


As to the research on outcomes, warranty, recalls, and guarantees? 


Methinks colleges would jump to advertise the monetary earning power of their vaunted degrees. 


Waiting.........

LBEddie
LBEddie

glad to discuss the issues.....Brenau does track the outcomes of its graduates....with some data holes due to non-response to our inquiries.........in the Nursing, Occupational Therapy, Clinical Psychology, Gerontology, Teacher Education (especially Children with Special Needs), Accounting, Organizational Management, Family Nurse Practitioners, Physician Assistant, Musical Theatre, Costuming Design and Construction, Studio Art, Conflict Mediation, Masters in Interior Design, and MBAs have nearly 100% employment in their fields. Some,very quality and powerful degrees which are historically important but not currently in favor with the traditional aged student market include History Degrees, Philosophy degrees, religion degrees, English Degrees,most language degrees other than Chinese-Spanish-and-Arabic, and many other esoteric but not leading to a career path or professional degree!


We don't sell a Brenau diploma. We award it after the student has completed satisfactorily the curriculum that the University's faculty has defined as central and critical to mastery of the subject. Remember that the largest component by far of our budget if for faculty salaries, instructional support, and facilities updates and maintenance.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics show that an average graduate of 4 year higher education program has approximately $1,000,000 more per year in earnings that a high school graduate.


Non-profits are not a diversion, It means our commitment is to mission not profit.Our mission is to provide the best possible preparation for a student to have a personally and professionally fulfilling life. We have no connections to Federal or State politics. We award over $9-5 Million in financial aid to undergraduate students, The faculty are committed to helping theor students to the point that they forgo far higher paying jobs for similar credentials because they are (to use an especially Baptist term----as I am one, I know) called to their professions by in large.the schools often forgo salary increase or at least receive reduced raises in order to keep tuition costs lower.


Tell me where that is bad! Come by and see a College in action today, economic development and personal growth at their best!

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Mr. LBeddie - You seem interested in the welfare of students. 


Would you be ever so kind as to explain why Brenau does not track the career success of graduates so incoming borrowers can assess the value of the aforementioned new car priced diploma?


You can immediately use the value in the car, drive it away from the dealer, to home, to work, to play. The dealer gives you a legal warranty. You can find all sorts of statistics and reviews on the new car and it can be recalled and repaired due to emergent flaws. 


Can you offer any of those things for your diploma which you have sold to a graduate?


No? Don't be so quick to use an immediately valuable and useful item that you can sell at anytime as an apt comparison to an iffy diploma. And... what about those that never graduate but still have the loan. Kind of like paying for a car you never get. Got any money back guarantees? 


Non-profiteering is a much used diversion. It only means the top dawgs get the profits and not shareholders.


You may be a true believer in student success and have a valuable product, but are using tired corporatey, non-profity, republicany sounding verbage to explain, not substantiate your point.

LBEddie
LBEddie

Please remember that all private colleges in Georgia who are incorporate as 501-C3 corporations are not for profit with any excess earning over expenses being reinvested i the operating cash or endowment to support the next year of students. For example, Brenau awards about $9.5 Million to undergraduate scholarships...all of those awards are merit based...and are awarded completely each year. OUR business is increasing the quality of life and offering students the skills and direction to change the world for good. Those effects are our only "profits!"

LBEddie
LBEddie

As the author,  I want to straighten out a few misstatements: 1) Brenau U. has about 3000 students about 50/50 underaged to grad; 2) The average undergraduate graduate leaves Brenau with $24,000 college debt or less, which is almost a full $5000 lower than the average student in the USA  and much less that the average student's first major investment after college....an automobile costing overt $35K; 3) about 50% of Brenau's undergraduate school's graduates are the first college graduate in their family; 5) Brenau is the highest overall ranked and performing veteran friendly college in GA over the past year by US News and World Reports.


Understand that I simply propose that we support a free market approach to college ratings carried on by the qualified and nongovernmental organizations that currently exist, not a "rookie" federal government agency which has never taken on a project such as this.and that such un tested government interference should be left at its incompetent minimum (honestly.)

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

What happened with the University System's plan to rate colleges by what their demographics say theySHOULD be doing?That is, UGA or Tech would be expected to have much higher grad rates than an Albany State.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

This was a predictive model, based on the most important, measurable variables, such as family group, SES, parental education, high school grades, SAT, etc.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Wascatlady 

Sorry, I'm not aware that USG had such a predictive model. This would be tricky to achieve, given that the Governor also announced a few years ago that funding allocations to USG schools would be based on their 6-year graduation rates rather than their enrollments as before. So these figures would have to be updated every year or so....

Starik
Starik

@Wascatlady Georgia Tech has always had a "gatekeeper" engineering culture; that's why employers who hire a GT graduate get a superior employee.  A degree from Tech, especially in engineering, is meaningful.  UGA has made a lot of progress as well. 

Philosophe
Philosophe

High schools must meet state and national standards depending on the course so that the value of a particular school can be assessed. Yet, at the collegiate level there are so many very poor classes due to no accountability. Where are the nationally normed exit exams that count at least 20 percent of grade to hold this level accountable? Not necessarily at the Masters and Ph.D level since these are research based classes but for College Algebra? Intro to Education? Psych 101? American History to 1870? etc. Far too many professors do not truly push collegiate students and yet nothing changes. Student surveys do not truly count since students will often rate a professor highly in courses with little work because that gave them more free time to work and/or party. We have placed a large burden at the K-12 level and still continue with traditional teaching at the highest level. Simply ridiculous....

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Headline - 

"Ratings roulette: Proposed federal system threatens U.S. higher education's ongoing scam of hooking students to lifelong indentured servitude(student loans) so they can overpay administrators"

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Milton Man, Astro, He-who whines,the long lost EDucator-What? No support for legislation for the state to take over these failing colleges? Oh wait, the state already runs them. I guess we can look forward to the Gov's K12 OSD having an on time grad rate of 41% like GA Tech. 


"But,but,but, waaaah, college is hard and some of these students have have to work". Let's see- GA Tech rejects 67% of applicants, admitted students have an A avg. in HS, and average 30-33 on the ACT- so elite, really smart, highly motivated kids graduate on time at a 41% rate and the school is roaring success, BUT, a K12 school that has an average cross section of very poor students and struggles to meet CCRPI has no excuses and should be taken over by the state because the local school board, teachers and administrators are BAD and caused the failure. 


But, but, but, the Board of Regents and the leaders of GA Tech are the white, I mean right people and deserve to control the million$ of taxpayer money. It is just a coincidence that both are heavily populated in the leadership area by OWM.

Point
Point

This is no different than rating high schools.

redweather
redweather

Brenau University's tuition ranges from $849 to $930 an hour.  

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

Last year when President Obama unfurled this new "accountability" rating system for colleges and universities, I thought it was a great idea. It was aimed at students and their parents who were trying to select a school. The present college rating systems were more concerned with academic ratings and national standing of the faculty. This was a much more practical ratings system, based on access, affordability, and outcomes (graduation rates).  Given that the federal government in 2013 awarded $150 billion a year in student loans and grants, they seemed to have a stake in this all.


Yet this President of Brenau College in Gainesville complains: "In the minds of its [federal] creators, the program grants the federal government an arsenal of sticks and carrots for prodding schools to accomplish the higher education Holy Grail trifecta: 1. greater accessibility for at-risk students, 2. tamping down tuition costs, 3. better outcomes."  What's so bad about that?! 

It doesn't take into account the factor of serving a "high-risk demographic," he writes. This might be the very one that needs to know the school's rating on this "trifecta."  How much will it cost? What's its graduation rate? Its job-placement of graduates?


And then I checked out Brenau College.  It's a small (1600 students total) women's college that costs $24,780 a year for tuition and fees, and graduates 47% of its students in 6 years. I can see why he is making the preposterous claim that this rating proposal "threatens higher education."

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf


He seems to fear students and their parents having more,factual,relevant information. If I were charging 25K per year and had those terrible numbers,I wouldn't want to be rated either.

Don't Tread
Don't Tread

We need a ratings system that measures how well the school's "graduates" can function as adults in the real world.  Graduation rates mean absolutely nothing if the so-called "graduate" can't read, write, use the correct word in a sentence, do math problems, or even follow instructions.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Don't Tread 

Perhaps that's relevant for high school graduates, but not college graduates, for Heaven's sake!

MiltonMan
MiltonMan

Yep - more ranking/rating systems.  Do APS a ton of good now did it not?

bu2
bu2

@MiltonMan 

USA Today is bad enough.  We really want one designed by the federal government?


The government should merely make sure key nformation is available, not do some arbitrary ranking system.

Astropig
Astropig

Students and parents would be free (at least for now) to ignore the ratings President Schrader. You could always jack up student fees and charges and turn the marketing machine on full blast if you didn't get the "right" rating-the one that you agree with.



Starik
Starik

How many kids secure large student loans for online and low-performing colleges? Is a University of Phoenix education worth the cost?  Oglethorpe?

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Starik 

Kids may not do this, but our U.S. vets too often do.  Or at least they use up their veterans' benefits on for-profit schools that promise them good grades for no effort and then a great job, and then have to get large student loans so they can finish at a genuine college.

whatsinthetaxes
whatsinthetaxes

Why rate the colleges when we have TV ads and posters on the sides of busses to tell us which schools are good? Don't look behind the curtain, Dorothy!