Grading Colleges?

Yesterday I walked down the kitchen and the Gotham Gal was reading the paper and she looked up and said “Obama wants to rate colleges. I think that’s a bad idea”. I thought about it for a second and said “hmm. I need to think about that”. We are both on the boards of trustees of higher education institutions (strangely not ones we attended in both cases). So I think its important to state upfront that my thoughts on this topic are not in any way related to the schools we are affiliated with.

The New York Times has a debate on this topic on their website today. I read all the views and understand the pros and cons. Here is where I come out.

1) Colleges and Universities should be held accountable for the outcomes they produce, particularly for students whose tuition is paid by taxpayers in the forms of grants or below market loans. If the taxpayers are footing the bills, we deserve to know where we are getting a return and where we are not.

2) The Federal Government is the wrong entity to do this. The chances that they will mess this up are too high to put them in charge of this.

3) We should peer produce this data, wikipedia style. Something like ratemyprofessors.com. Students who get federal or state funding for some or all of their education should be required to submit information to such a service. Students whose educations are not funded by the government should be encouraged to opt in and report. The data should not include personally identifiable information (although I recognize that it would theoretically be possible to reverse engineer it if someone really wanted to do that). Most importantly, we should collect data on how the students do in their careers so we can measure real outcomes. Grades and graduations rates are nice. Earning power five and ten years out is even more important.

4) This would be a completely open database. All data would be available to be analyzed via open and public APIs, like the early days of the Twitter API. This would allow many third parties to analyze the data. There is no one truth, but if you triangulate, you can get closer to it.

Building this would not be hard. Making it the standard would be harder. It should be a non profit like Wikipedia is so everyone can and will trust it and work with it. And the federal and state governments should adopt it, support it, and require participation in it for those who are benefitting from taxpayer dollars.

If Obama really wants to rate Colleges and Universities, and I think we should be doing that, then this is the right way to do it.