Education leaders from the Midlands are rightly cautioning the Obama administration to tread carefully as it develops a ranking system for how the federal government distributes its student grant and loan funds to colleges and universities.
There’s legitimate concern the changes could penalize schools that predominantly serve nontraditional students, including those in the Midlands.
One factor being considered for the ranking formula is income after graduation. But not every college or university produces a large portion of students going into high-paying professions.
Many students are studying for professions — public education or criminal justice, for example — where the work is important but salaries are far from spectacular.
It would be woefully shortsighted for federal officials to impose a one-size-fits-all policy that penalizes institutions serving a broad range of students as part of their basic mission.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha is a good example. As The World-Herald’s Kate Howard Perry reported, about 42 percent of its freshmen are first-generation college students and more than 62 percent work a part-time job. UNO also is commendably reaching out to boost its number of minority and disadvantaged students.
It’s hard to see how a federal ranking system could responsibly take into account the tremendous variations at UNO or in the more than 6,000 institutions of higher learning across our country.
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former U.S. secretary of education, has cautioned against “turning Washington into a sort of national school board for our colleges and universities.”
If the Obama administration bases the federal ranking system too stringently on factors such as graduation rates or income after graduation, then colleges could feel pressured to tighten their admission requirements, reducing opportunities for disadvantaged and nontraditional students.
This risk applies in particular to Nebraska’s state colleges and community colleges. “We really struggle with the idea that it may change who you let in,” Korinne Tande, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at the Nebraska State College System, told Perry.
The administration also is considering giving colleges a “bonus” based on the number of students they graduate who received Pell Grants, to encourage colleges to enroll disadvantaged students. That legitimate goal could offer some balance. But the big picture is that the feds could be creating an overly complicated funding formula that would be the target of never-ending disagreement, complaint and revamping.
The new rating system, intended to begin for the fall semester in 2015, could be implemented by the Obama administration as part of its executive authority, without approval from Congress.
The White House will soon hold a conference at which higher education officials from around the country will be invited to attend. Midlands education leaders say they hope to communicate their concerns during that event.
It’s doubtful in the first place whether changes in how the federal government divvies up its aid funds can make much difference in slowing the troubling, ever-increasing cost of college.
But it would be especially regrettable if federal officials, in trying to apply a supposed solution, only made the problem worse.