Who Will Make Top-Ranked Colleges Affordable?


The most anticipated magazine publication of the year is the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, but the second most anticipated is the US News college rankings. Anyone who has examined the evidence of photo editing in Sports Illustrated will question the accuracy of the skin reproductions shown. Those of us of a certain age may recall the Playboy centerfolds who never had a wart, mole or visible vein. The myth lives on.

Unfortunately, the US News rating system has about the same credibility, but a great deal more social impact. We live in a time when there is a growing need for education, and more concern for a quality education. It makes sense to want the best, but instead of learning what’s the best, we get an ongoing litany of self-fulfilling prophesies. Well, nobody said it would be easy.

It doesn’t take long so see the flaws in the US News system. The most weight, 30% of the rating, is devoted to outcomes. This is hard data based on student retention and graduation rate. The problem is that the schools that are considered the best can afford to be the most selective and recruit the most qualified students. The most qualified students are the ones most likely to graduate.

Skip two slots (we’ll get back to them in a minute) and 12.5% of the final score is based on student scores on SAT and ACT, which is essentially the criteria that schools use to establish their selectivity, which is what gives them the edge in graduation rates.

The second measure is “expert opinion,” which is the opinion of “presidents, provosts, high school counselors and admissions deans.” Now these are people who have informed opinions about both their own and other schools, but how many other schools? Ten, twenty? The high school counselors might have informed opinions about the leading public and private schools, and even the different schools in their own state, but c’mon gang. It’s no wonder the top 10, maybe even the top 25, always seem to be occupied by the same few schools.

Then there’s alumni giving, good for 5% of the total score. This measures the percentage of alumni who donate to the college and presumably measures the loyalty they feel towards their alma mater. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to US News that it might also be an index of disposable income, and a university can improve its ranking by the simple device of closing its school of library science while expanding its MBA program.

What seems fairly obvious is that society has expanded to the point where a college education is now necessary for occupations that, in the past, could reasonably be performed with a high school diploma, but there’s a challenge in making this education both available and affordable. A search of the web sites of Donald Trump shows an interesting contrast of ideas. Mr. Trump’s site doesn’t have much to say on the subject – actually it has nothing to say. Perhaps Mr. Trump is still slightly embarrassed by the low rating given Trump University. He has given speeches on the subject of education, but none of the reports cover college quality or affordability. Basically, he seems to top off at high school, and his primary concern is school choice. He has promised to make major cuts in the Department of Education budget.

In contrast to Mr. Trump’s brevity, Secretary Clinton offers a 1,323 word discussion of college affordability. If that’s not enough, there’s a 3,190 word transcript of her remarks at the National Education Association. While she does digress from the issue of affordability, she does propose an integration of social services to offer the best services for children, and expansion of state colleges and universities. While much of what she says focuses on financing, it’s important to understand from the US News analysis, the “best” university may be more focused on research and not teaching.

One key point on the Clinton plan is that all state-operated community colleges will be free to state residents. The plans for four-year colleges are considerably more complex but they would allow students to graduate with a four-year degree and no debt. Affordable college may be the most effective means of revitalizing the economy.

Modern society demands a college degree – in many occupations the entry level is already an advanced degree. We’re already behind the curve. Anybody got a plan?

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email sdu01@outlook.com.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2016


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