If a college freshman stepped onto a campus where it was obvious that the administration had spent months eviscerating each other over petty slights instead of balancing the budget—or refusing to name a dean because a faction of the faculty resent his work on committees—the student would undoubtedly run screaming into the night looking for the fastest way out of there.
So, remind me, exactly why do we want the federal government setting benchmarks for higher education? This is, after all, the same group that keeps making pennies at a loss. As President Obama recently outlined in a proposal called “The President’s Plan for a Strong Middle Class and a Strong America,” the latest idea to improve our educational system is to hold “colleges accountable for cost, value, and quality” and use these criteria, plus affordability and student outcomes, as prerequisites for receiving federal student financial aid.
Explained simply, the president is proposing to bring big government into the college ratings game. Right now, colleges and universities are rated (or accredited, as we say in higher education) by regional or national education agencies. The proposal would add some more consumer-related ratings such as graduation rates, job placements, and salaries to these accreditation criteria, and the government would possibly take over responsibility for the entire system.
I’m one of President Obama’s fans (it’s always nice to have a former college professor in the Oval Office), but in this case he must have cut class for skeet shooting on the day they studied logic in law school.
Let’s look at this the way Socrates might have, although if he had to deal with federal oversight of his dialogues he might have drank the hemlock out of frustration.
- Budgets: Campus officials must balance the budget every year, cutting services and programs in lean years and expanding services and programs in flush times. The federal government today can’t pass a budget at gunpoint and the juvenile sniping and backstabbing on both sides make the chronically late student begging for an extension look like a Disraelian statesman by comparison.
- Diversity: The U.S. higher education system is the envy of the world. We are the destination education for students from Asia, Europe, and South America. In turn, those international students help recover some of the spending Americans do on foreign products. The strength of American colleges and universities is that each one approaches its mission to educate in a different way. Federal accreditation means eventually all colleges and universities would become cookie-cutter institutions offering programs that will be as differentiated as Johnny Cash’s wardrobe.
- Competition: The soul of higher education is building a campus that attracts brilliant students with visions to change the world. To do that, college and university leaders look for innovation and experimentation to get an edge on the competition. The federal government does not do well with competition. Actually, it doesn’t do well without competition either. See Amtrak. Or the U.S. Postal Service. Higher education institutions have been trying to outdo each other since colonial times by recruiting the best students through the balancing of affordability and value. Bringing the government into the mix would be the equivalent of asking to stage a reasoned debate at the Salem witch trials.
There are some institutions that could use marked improvement, of course. There are a number of universities where students try college for a year and fail to return. The for-profit universities also have a few hurdles to overcome before their style of education reaches the lofty standards consumers have come to expect from American universities.
In the long run, homogenizing higher education to fit a set of preconceived “standards” will dilute one of the best products the United States has ever created: the independent, brilliant, inquisitive college graduate.
Do we really want Harry Reid, John Boehner, Dennis Kucinich, and Mitch McConnell making decisions as to whether our children go to Harvard, Stanford, or Mankato State?
Only if we want the United States to weaken its standing in the global community—in one of the categories where we still set the standard for excellence.
Thomas R. Kepple retired on May 31 after serving as president of Juniata College (Pa.) since 1998.