Scoring Obama’s College Scorecard

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Illustration by Bloomberg View

The last thing the U.S. higher education system needs, as any bewildered high-school parent will attest, is another set of rankings. So in that sense President Barack Obama’s proposal to help curb the cost of higher education with a new “college scorecard” is unfortunate.

But let’s not allow the distracting nomenclature stand in the way of what is essentially a thoughtful effort to address the causes of education inflation.

The expense of attending a public university rose 46 percent in real terms from 2000 through 2010, while average incomes stagnated. After months of fighting over the precise interest rate on federal student loans, it’s refreshing to see the government finally focus on the underlying problem of costs.

Obama’s basic approach -- using the $150 billion the federal government provides annually in student financial aid to encourage more states and schools to embrace efficiency -- is sound. It’s also reasonable to rank colleges and universities based on criteria such as affordability, graduation rates and alumni earnings. These metrics are supposed to be in force by 2015, and Obama wants them to guide federal spending by 2018.

But rankings are tricky things: As the president himself noted, schools already seek to game the scoring system published by U.S. News & World Report. There’s a risk that schools will similarly shift their spending and policies to maximize their rankings, rather than maximizing the benefit to students. There’s also the risk of wasting precious time arguing with schools, students and states over how to build the ranking system, rather than focusing on reducing costs.

There’s a better and quicker way to proceed -- in fact, the Obama administration has already proposed it. In its 2014 budget request this spring, the White House asked Congress for $1 billion to fund a “Race to the Top” initiative for higher education, similar to the program of the same name for primary and secondary education as part of the 2009 stimulus package.

The Race to the Top program allows the federal government to sidestep the contentious and protracted process of determining exactly how to define and measure each school’s progress. Instead, it would delegate that work to the states, in return for extra federal funding for those that show results.

That proposal remains part of the package the president released today. It risks being lost in a flurry of other ideas, including the new rankings, a “Datapalooza” of new information for students, a $260 million fund to test innovative approaches to saving money, a $500 million fund to promote accelerated degrees, and regulatory waivers for “experimental sites.” And those are just the measures aimed at controlling costs.

It’s an impressive range of ideas. But initiatives with many moving and overlapping parts can be hard to manage. It would be a shame if none of these ideas came to fruition simply because they were part of a larger reform package that Congress rejected or, more likely, failed to take up.

Speaking of Congress: The White House said it will challenge college leaders, states, philanthropists and the private sector to improve the value of higher education. That’s fine, but in the meantime, it should challenge its friends down the street -- the ones who control the purse strings. Until then, it’s unclear how much the Obama administration can accomplish on its own.

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