How rating colleges can challenge students

As the Obama administration crafts a rating system for colleges, a study reveals how little students feel challenged by their professors. Ratings may help raise expectations in higher education.

AP Photo
First lady Michelle Obama, left, Bell Multicultural High School alumni Menbere Assefa, center, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan look to an audience member asking a question at a Nov. 12 event in Washington.

This month, the Obama administration kicked off a nationwide listening tour. Its purpose to find ways to rate colleges on a number of measures, especially their “value” to students. The goal is to “shake up” higher education so it better serves low-income students. Another is to push the United States to have the world’s highest percentage of college graduates by 2020.

Many Republicans back this initiative to rate higher ed, a rare case of bipartisanship. Even first lady Michelle Obama has jumped on this bandwagon. “When the year 2020 rolls around, nearly two-thirds of all jobs in this country are going to require some form of training beyond high school,” Mrs. Obama said Tuesday.

President Obama wants to ensure that the federal government gets the most education bang for the buck, or the $150 billion in federal grants and loans it gives students. It is hardly alone in trying to place some sort of grade on institutions of higher ed. Many states, a few media outlets such as U.S. News & World Report, and academic groups have been designing methods to judge college and universities for years.

These rising expectations for higher ed are needed. A number of studies have recently discovered how little students learn in college, such as critical thinking skills. On Thursday, the annual National Survey of Student Engagement, based at Indiana University Bloomington, revealed that 45 percent of freshmen and nearly 40 percent of seniors say their courses did not challenge them to do their best work.

In other words, close to half of college students regard their teachers as treating them with low expectations. Nothing could matter more in learning than for professors to see their students as fully able to understand and use a particular discipline.

In addition, the survey, which polled nearly 335,000 freshmen and seniors at 568 colleges and universities, found that 6 out of 10 did not rely on their academic adviser as their primary source of advice in navigating academia. They have relied instead on family, friends, or professors. The survey found this “concerning.”

This survey points out just a few of the critical flaws in today’s higher education – and points to the need for accountability to either the government or others who are paying the bills.

The US Department of Education plans to develop its rating system by 2018 – a sort of Consumer Reports-style comparison of schools with similar missions – and then tie federal student aid to how well each college meets the federal criteria, such as the percentage of students who graduate within six years.

Not all students know how to be students. Many, if not most, rise to the high expectations placed on them. Rating schools is only one way to push them to improve. Given the limits of comparative data about institutions, the method may not be the best way. But it’s a start.

As Mr. Obama gets set to roll out a federal rating system by 2015, even the anticipation of it may start to “shake up” higher education.

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