Complete And Total Victory

Illustration: Aidan Wharton

This article originally appeared on Imbroglio. Imbroglio is a newsletter from The Branch about how we bring about the education revolution. Most of our posts will focus on the future of K-12 and higher education, but we’ll also cover the imbroglio itself — the politics, misdirection, the excuse-making, the mediocrity. Occasionally we’ll also meander into the general science of learning outside of the traditional education system.

In 2013, President Obama shook up the world of higher education by proposing a bold plan: the federal government would rate and evaluate colleges and universities to keep them accountable for skyrocketing costs and lackluster outcomes. Set to fully launch in 2015, the new rating system would consider a school’s tuition, the debt load of its graduates, and even the proportion of low-income students the school served. The end goal: reward high-performing institutions with more federal aid and give students a better bang for their buck.

Obama stated during the program’s announcement, “Colleges that keep their tuition down and are providing high-quality education are the ones that are going to see their taxpayer money going up.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan further emphasized the importance of responsible use of federal funding, stating, “We have a financial and moral obligation to be good stewards of these dollars.” While the rating system could have been established through executive action, tying federal aid to performance would have required congressional approval.

The congressional GOP’s response to Obama’s proposed plan was immediate and fierce. Rep. John Kline, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, labeled the program as “arbitrary” and a dangerous move toward “federal price controls.” Senator Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, warned that requiring all 6,000 higher education institutions to conform to the same standards would essentially turn “Washington into a sort of national school board for our colleges and universities.” Senator Marco Rubio, a leading contender for the 2016 GOP nomination at the time, criticized the plan as a “slippery slope” that would ultimately lead to the private sector relinquishing more of its freedom to innovate and take risks.

Many university officials were even more critical of the plan. Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College, referred to it as “a sledgehammer to the whole system.” Ken Starr, president of Baylor University, labeled it “quite wrongheaded.” The American Council on Education president, Molly Corbett Broad, vowed to be “vigilant in working to prevent tying the receipt of aid to metrics” on behalf of the organization that represents colleges and universities. Charles L. Flynn Jr., president of the College of Mount Saint Vincent, stated that the rating system “cannot be done well” and criticized the initiative as “uncharacteristically clueless.” Similarly, Adam F. Falk, president of Williams College, warned that the system would be “oversimplified to the point that it actually misleads.”

The barrage of attacks from higher education and skeptical Republicans worked. Here’s the New York Times from September 2015, the year the system was supposed to go into effect:

President Obama on Saturday abandoned his two-year effort to have the government create a system that explicitly rates the quality of the nation’s colleges and universities, a plan that was bitterly opposed by presidents at many of those institutions. . . . The White House on Saturday unveiled a website that does not attempt to rate schools with any kind of grade, but provides information to prospective students and their parents about annual costs, graduation rates and salaries after graduation. . . . White House officials noted that . . . the new website will not be linked to student aid.

No ranking. No link between quality and funding. No accountability. 

At the time, some university leaders said they did not need a government ranking system because they already had private ranking systems, such as the U.S. News & World Report lists. But currently, many elite schools are undermining the private rankings as well. In recent months, several prestigious law schools, including Yale, Harvard, Georgetown, Stanford, and the University of California Berkeley, have announced that they will no longer provide data to the U.S. News & World Report, effectively pulling out of the rankings altogether. Top medical schools, such as Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania, have followed suit. Many of these institutions have also dropped standardized testing requirements, depriving the public of the only transparent and objective data points available.

Eric Gertler, CEO of U.S. News & World Report, fired backarguing that elite universities were ducking accountability:

Elite schools object to our use of a common data set for all schools because our rankings are something they can’t control and they don’t want to be held accountable by an independent third party. There is added urgency as the Supreme Court considers a pair of cases on affirmative action that could change admission norms. Some law deans are already exploring ways to sidestep any restrictive ruling by reducing their emphasis on test scores and grades—criteria used in our rankings. By refusing to participate, elite schools are opting out of an important discussion about what constitutes the best education for students, while implying that excellence and important goals like diversity are mutually exclusive.

Where is the Biden administration in this fight? Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona attacked the rankings. “It’s time to stop worshiping at the false altar of U.S. News & World Report,” he said. “It’s time to focus on what truly matters—delivering value and upward mobility.”

This is an astonishing victory for the higher education establishment. A decade ago, they were in the crosshairs of a Democratic president who wanted to hold them accountable in unprecedented ways. They not only beat back that effort but are now poised to squash key pillars of non-governmental accountability while removing many transparent and objective admissions standards—and they are doing so with the full backing of a Democratic president. This is the same president who has attempted to forgive hundreds of billions of dollars in student loans without requiring anything from the institutions that have been driving up college costs. 

College administrators claim their opposition to standardized testing and the U.S. News & World Report rankings are fueled by a desire for greater equity. I have already shared elsewhere why this is a faulty argument:

●     On the Lost Debate podcast concerning rankings 

●     In Persuasion and the Regressives podcast with respect to subjective and qualitative admissions processes

●     In the Lost Debate Substack regarding standardized tests 

These elite schools will find a reason to oppose any ranking, including those in the Obama proposal, which planned to emphasize equity and would not have considered standardized test results. Notably, many of these institutions claiming to act in the name of equity have refused to abandon legacy admissions policies. 

If elite higher education has its way, students applying to their schools will have no objective metrics to predict admissions success, poor and piecemeal data on program quality, and no rating systems to incentivize schools to improve on key metrics. Under no pressure to deliver results, schools can hide behind opaque criteria and manicured data. In essence, students will be left to tap-dance their way through admissions processes that emphasize elaborate and expensive extracurricular activities, professionally edited essays, and demeaning selection interviews. 

I do not claim that the U.S. News ranking or Obama’s proposed rankings are perfect, but they are better than no rating system at all. Ideally, we would have a diversity of governmental and private rankings that students and parents can review. When Obama abandoned his effort, Planet Money created its own ranking system—one that emphasizes graduates’ earnings relative to tuition cost, favors colleges that contribute best to upward mobility, and preferences graduates’ ability to pay off loans fastest. U.S. News considers many of these factors, but I am skeptical of their formula. For example, social mobility and graduate indebtedness contribute only 5% to a college’s score. They also factor in alumni giving rates, which I would not include at all. 

In his 2013 bus tour promoting the rating system, Obama addressed an eager audience of 7,200 students, saying, “Colleges are not going to just be able to keep on increasing tuition year after year and passing it on to students.” He added, “we can’t price the middle class and everybody working to get into the middle class out of college.”

Back then, the average annual cost of private college tuition was $25,707. By 2021, that number ballooned to $38,185, far outpacing inflation.

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