Obama’s college ratings plan could backfire

President Obama speaks at Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y., on the first day of a two-day bus tour where he is speaking about college financial aid.
(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

The United States didn’t develop its great universities by reducing higher education to equations of graduation rates and job placement. Yet on Thursday, the Obama administration revealed a plan that would push colleges in that very direction and could harm some of the students the president most wants to help.

The president’s proposal to make higher education “a better bargain” includes some strong elements, especially a public rating system for colleges that will help students make thoughtful choices about which schools are best for them. By using the system, families will have access to clear information, consistent from school to school, about the full costs, availability of financial aid, graduation rates and the earnings of alumni. They’ll discover that a higher tuition price isn’t necessarily the best indicator of career success.

The ratings might persuade colleges to hold the line on prices as newly informed families are empowered to make cost-benefit decisions. Right now, people can make a better-informed consumer decision about a $20 coffee maker than a $200,000 college education.

Where the president’s proposal veers into reductionism, though, is by tying the availability of financial aid to those ratings. Students would find federal financial help such as Pell grants easier to obtain at schools with higher graduation rates and postgraduate salaries, among other factors. The president also will pressure states to tie their funding of public colleges and universities to the ratings. Gov. Jerry Brown proposed something like that for California’s four-year college systems, a destructive idea that was fortunately squashed in the Legislature.

Such financial schemes could backfire on students who already face the biggest obstacles to a college education. It’s not hard for schools to lower their dropout rates. The cheap and easy way to accomplish this is by accepting the students most likely to graduate — the demographics of students at high risk of dropping out are well known — and lowering academic standards so that almost no one flunks. That’s not good for anyone.

The Times recently published a profile of Kashawn Campbell, a motivated, hardworking student at UC Berkeley. Campbell is a graduate of Los Angeles’ Jefferson High, a school with abysmal test scores and lower standards than schools in more affluent areas. Despite his high grades at Jefferson, Campbell has been struggling to hold on academically in college. We’re cheering for him. But under Obama’s blueprint, colleges would receive higher ratings — and more financial assistance — if they didn’t give students like Campbell a shot at their dream. That’s not a “better bargain” for the nation’s hopeful students.