The 'Or Else!' Education Agenda
Any parent of a petulant child can recall when they told their little one to pick up his toys -- "or else!" Repeated power struggles teach parents that browbeating is a poor strategy. It is no better a strategy to use in leading a nation.
Consider the White House's proposed college ratings system. In its current form, which was spelled out late last month, the U.S. Department of Education will give universities a score based on criteria that include the number of students using Pell grants for tuition assistance, how much debt students accrue paying for school, and the extent to which schools enroll "disadvantaged students." The administration is resting the plan on the concept of affordability, with subjective components linking cost to the completion of a degree.
Like most of Washington's initiatives, the effort appears to be well-intentioned, since students are taking out sizable loans and college-completion rates are underwhelming. The average student taking out a loan graduates nearly $30,000 in debt, and fewer than 60 percent of students enrolled in four-year institutions finish in six years.
Yet the Wall Street Journal reports that President Obama intends to make federal funding contingent on a college's ranking. There is no empirical research to support the new rating criteria, which should make college-seekers pause before using the scores to compare schools. At the very least, the administration would benefit from more consensus on the idea, since the current chairmen of the U.S. House and Senate education committees called the ratings system arbitrary and "a fool's errand" in a press release last December.
Without reliable research and in the face of Republican opposition, the administration is telling thousands of colleges across the country that they should change their enrollment and instructional agendas, or else the generous hand that delivers taxpayer dollars -- $150 billion in student aid alone -- could be withdrawn.
This isn't the first time this administration has used the "or else" strategy in education. In 2010, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told state leaders that the largest source of federal K-12 education funds would be contingent on whether states adopted what would later be known as the Common Core national standards. The standards were billed as a state-led initiative, which made Washington's keen interest in state adoption suspicious. To date, there is scant research on whether these standards help students succeed. In a brief analysis from March 2014, the Brookings Institution reported "no signs" that the standards have had any impact on student achievement so far.
The administration backed away from the proposal to attach federal money to a state's decision to adopt the standards. However, as recently as 2013, Duncan was pressuring California to adhere to new testing requirements aligned with the standards, or else the state would lose part of the state's $1.5 billion in federal funding. Old habits die hard.
Colleges have unique missions and different priorities, which is their prerogative. Yet the administration's ratings choose schools' priorities for them. The new ratings put the focus on getting students into college with no mention of a student's preparedness; helping students pay for college, regardless of how well they are doing with their studies; and making sure students graduate, again with a glaring lack of consideration for whether students are prepared for life after school.
The Education Department pledges to design a system that "works for everyone," which reveals a disconnection from reality. The list of federal ideas over the past 250 years that have worked for everyone is quite short. Students and universities should be free to make decisions in their best interests, since the administration has yet to muster evidence or build a consensus that they have students' or schools' best interests in mind.
Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow with the Beacon Center.