President Obama has proposed tying financial aid to American colleges and universities to a “rating system” of higher education. The administration has conducted a number of public forums at college campuses over the last few weeks to purportedly collect input on the proposal. We can only hope these forums enable the president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to see how little they know about the realities of higher education.
Obama and Duncan have, so far, relayed their concern about how many students enrolled in colleges across the country actually graduate with a bachelor’s degree. They seem to think that a low graduation rate indicates an underperforming college.
What they don’t realize is that many students, especially those enrolled in community colleges, must attend college part-time and under heavy burdens. It is estimated that only a third of America’s 18 million college students attend full-time residential colleges, as Obama, Duncan and I did. The remainder, about 12 million students, must work their way through school and often at a slower pace.
Many must attend school in the evening. Many depend upon day care centers at their colleges for child care. And these students often take longer to obtain a degree. Given their burdens, it is no surprise that a higher percentage drop out. It’s also no surprise that students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to graduate in four years.
Berea College in Kentucky, for example, takes only students from lower-income families; many take longer to complete their studies. Should Berea be penalized for taking a chance on them?
Some colleges take a chance on those who are immigrants or who have had interrupted educations. Should they be penalized?
I wish Obama and Duncan could have met my father. In 1926, William Penn College in Iowa took a chance on a penniless Armenian refugee who knew very little English. It was hard for him to master English and study chemistry at the same time, all while working multiple jobs to earn his way. Five years later, he was one of those who pioneered the development of ethanol. Would a college dare to take a chance on such a person under the pending Obama ratings plan?
Perhaps the most pernicious feature of the Obama plan is to rate colleges on the earnings of their graduates. Under the plan, a college that produces Wall Street investment bankers would rate higher than a college producing kindergarten teachers, registered nurses and, in a twist of fitful irony for Obama, even community organizers.
Within the legal community, as well, few would hold lawyers earning millions as more valuable than those working for Legal Aid or those opening solo practices in ethnic or minority neighborhoods. I am proud of the students I have taught at The John Marshall Law School who have gone back to their communities. They won’t die millionaires, but they are doing good. Why should any college or graduate school producing such graduates be penalized in a ratings game?
Obama could do more for higher education by investing in the early childhood education of all American children. He should abandon any attempt to rate colleges and instead focus his attention on providing financial aid to students who most deserve it.
Ann M. Lousin, a professor at The John Marshall Law School since 1975, is the 2013-14 Edward T. and Noble W. Lee Chair in Constitutional Law.