Higher education offers more than a path to riches

President of McKendree UniversityFebruary 2, 2014 

President Obama has proposed reforms to make higher education more affordable and accessible. I applaud the President and his administration for their interest in this topic and I agree with his statement, "A higher education is the single most important investment students can make in their own futures."

Affordability and accessibility are issues that McKendree University has focused on for the last decade. We have worked hard to extend our educational opportunities to students of diverse backgrounds and financial ability, and we will continue to embrace students who truly represent our society and reflect its strengths and uniqueness. Many of our students are the first in their families to attend college; we have programs and advisers that help to ensure their transition, success and retention.

President Obama's plan will measure college performance through a new rating system so students and families have information to select schools that provide the best value. The U.S. Department of Education sought public input into how best to design the value metric, by hosting four public "listening sessions" at universities around the country last fall. The White House proposes to publish these new college ratings before the 2015 school year and to tie federal financial aid to college performance by 2018, once the ratings are well established.

The most fundamental problem is that the administration's proposal is based on a flawed assumption: that it is possible to reliably and validly assess and rate the quality of all of America's higher education institutions by a single set of measures. The challenge of trying to evaluate all colleges and universities with one formula for comparison is problematic and ill advised. Student financial aid should not be linked to the value metric proposed in the President's plan.

One of the great strengths of higher education-and of our region-is the diversity of institutions, which allows prospective students to make a choice about what is best for them and their situation. Southwestern Illinois College, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and McKendree University-a community college, a large public institution, and a private liberal arts university-have different goals and different methods for reaching them. We are all trying to provide a solid education but our philosophies and approaches vary according to what works best for our students.

President Obama's plan calls for using college graduates' salaries as a way to evaluate an institution's success. Equating educational value with earnings as a criteria is foolish and way too materialistic. Not all college degrees and careers have the same rate of monetary return. An emphasis on salary could discourage people from pursuing certain kinds of work and discourage schools from offering certain majors. Careers in criminal justice, social work, religion or music education, for example, are typically not paid at the highest salary levels but they are an important part of the underpinning of our society and our culture.

Salary should not be a tool by which we rate colleges. The value of a liberal arts higher education is measured not only in academic knowledge and skill, but also in student engagement, responsible citizenship and a commitment to service.

The Department of Education is seeking public input, therefore I advise Americans to be aware, be cautious and move slowly. We must broaden the tools that are used, if indeed they are necessary, to evaluate and rate our colleges and universities. We can encourage the federal government's role in providing consumer information, particularly as it relates to providing data commonly available to help students find a "best fit" college. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, for example, developed its University and College Accountability Network (U-CAN) in response to policy makers' calls for consumer transparency. It includes quantitative and qualitative information, incorporating 49 data points into two-page profiles, using reader-friendly graphics, charts and graphs recommended by focus groups. It could serve as a launching point for a joint effort between our institutions and the federal government.

Our educational institutions are a precious resource for this country. It is fair to hold them accountable to high standards. It is also proper to expect our government and these institutions to maximize the effectiveness of federal financial aid. Using the starting salaries of our graduates is not the way to move forward and does our students and our country a disservice. I call on President Obama and his administration to find a better way to measure student and institutional success. While seductive for some, simply earning money should not be the tool to measure the success of our students or our educational institutions.

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