Reflections on higher education refoorm

The recent proposal from President Obama focuses upon questions of cost, quality, and accountability faced by students and parents trying to make tough decisions about college. There is no question that families are struggling, but they are not struggling alone. The Obama plan makes it sound like colleges are not concerned about cost, but in fact members of the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges (AVIC) are adding online programs, compressed scheduling, and accelerated degrees in response to these economic realities. Moreover, Vermont's independent colleges and universities annually provide nearly $146 million in institutional aid from their own resources and seek private investments to supplement student financial aid. While the intention of providing consistent and accurate information to assist in college decision-making is a good one, to tie federal aid to a new college ranking system will likely generate a stream of unintended consequences. If retention becomes a heavily weighted measure, there might be an incentive for schools to admit only high achievers and avoid students who represent a risk, thereby deterring exactly those applicants who might most benefit from higher education.

Comparable considerations might also come into play around the issue of graduation and academic standards. Schools that adhere to rigorous standards may be at a disadvantage compared to institutions willing to graduate students with poor academic records. Colleges serving significant populations of veterans or students with learning disabilities not only face a greater demand for specialized services and staffing, but the success of their students may not be captured in a typical ranking.

Obama's plan may require colleges to report their graduates' types of job and earnings after college. Is the salary of new graduates the most important marker of success? This could discourage colleges from producing graduates who go into public service, non-profits work, or the arts. Do we really want a society that values earning power more than public service? AVIC supports the idea that students should find a college that is a good fit for them and where they are most likely to succeed. The question then becomes which factors they should consider when deciding where to pursue their education. AVIC would not want to see situations where the federal government discourages attendance at a best-fit institution by offering a student more money to go elsewhere. One of the great strengths of American higher education is the diversity of institutional choices it offers. A rating system built around a handful of limiting factors is likely over time to lead to greater standardization and less innovation.

The private colleges and universities of Vermont are pleased that the President has indicated he does not wish to develop this proposal in a vacuum and will reach out to the higher education community in further defining the initiative. AVIC members remain committed to helping ensure that students have the information they need to make the right higher education choice and do so for themselves.

Susan Stitely is the President of Association of Vermont Independent Colleges in Montpelier. AVIC is a professional association of 19 Vermont independent colleges.


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