President Adam Falk released a letter to the U.S.
Department of Education on Jan. 30 responding to a new federal college rating system proposed in Aug. 2013. In his letter, Falk offered constructive criticism to policymakers regarding the ways to best serve families and students of all socioeconomic backgrounds navigating higher education.
Falk’s letter reacted to the most recent developments of President Obama’s college affordability agenda. The Department of Education’s plan is to create a new rating system that will take into account three main categories of evaluation: access to students, measured by financial availability to applicants of various socioeconomic strata; affordability, measured by factors such as net price and average loan debt; and outcomes, measured by statistics regarding graduation and transfer rates.
Given the soaring tuitions in American higher education and a significant amount of student loan debt, which averaged $29400 per student in 2012 according to the Institute for College Access and Success, advocates of the
new rating system argue students and their families need to be better informed before they make a college choice.
“Regarding information for families, I would point out that a great deal already exists,” Falk wrote in his letter. “It seems instead that vulnerable students and families either do not know how to access this information or lack the ability to make effective use of it.”
Additionally, Falk is concerned about how the ratings could affect community colleges and the students who are unable to attend any other institution of higher education outside of their local community. “What worries me are the public institutions that are challenged by available resources and the demographics of their student population,” Falk said to the Record. “Students should not be punished for living an economically depressed area and not having the ability to attend a college outside of that area. The idea of punishing a community college and the students who attend, especially if they have no other choices, strikes me as perverse.”
Moreover, the proposed rating system would be used as a tool in federal allocations, with an eye toward minimizing the waste of federal financial aid, which comprises about $150 billion per year in the form of grants and loans. If federal aid is dependent, in part, upon graduation rate, a college with few financial resources could potentially not admit students who might not graduate; a college in this situation could then change its admissions strategies to maximize aid received. “Tying ratings to factors like graduation rate could change the student make-up of many schools in ways that would be counterproductive,” said Falk.
One of Falk’s major concerns is the manner in which the proposed system will make federal aid distribution dependent on an arbitrary, and perhaps incomplete, metric.
“What worries me is the direct tying of federal aid to how colleges do on the scorecard,” Falk said to the Record. “Colleges and universities are diverse in the types of institutions, students and resources they have at their disposal. Diversity is a great strength, and any rating system not sensitive to diversity will do more harm than good.”
Lee Park, professor of chemistry and chair of the Committee on Educational Policy, shared Falk’s views on the proposed system’s potential for constricting or misconstruing collegiate diversity. “Questions of the affordability of and the value inherent in a college education are quite reasonably very important to students and their families,” Park said. “The idea that you could use the same rating system to compare the very different kinds of educational institutions that exist (liberal arts colleges, major research universities, comprehensives, community colleges) doesn’t make much sense to me.”
In his letter, Falk urged the Department of Education to not consider post-graduate salary as the exclusive indicator of success. Park agreed, pointing out how monetary gain “cannot be the only measure of what is of value in a college education.”
Falk’s letter enters into the ongoing discourse about how best to maximize students’ access to higher education in the United States. “Finding an ideal way to financially support colleges and universities cannot be solved with a cudgel,” Falk said to the Record. “This requires complex nuanced problem-solving. There is no easy solution.” Falk believes the government should work towards finding positive ways to change funding in higher education, rather than basing it all upon a rating system. Many other colleges, universities and higher education associations have also released public letters on this matter, including the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the Association of American Universities.
“We need [the College] to be in this conversation,” Falk said. “We are an individual college, but we will carry a lot of weight. We have a stake in this issue.”